As part of her duties for Taft Museum of Art in 2007, Tamera Lenz Muente — now an assistant curator — was doing research for an exhibit on the work of acclaimed 19th century sculptor Hiram Powers.
The show included works that Powers made during his early adulthood in Cincinnati (before he moved to Florence, Italy) or otherwise had local/regional connections. So Muente tried to find out what she could about his years here, where he lived from age 12 to 26.
She knew he got his start sculpting realistic wax figures for displays at a tourist attraction called the Western Museum. It started with legitimate intentions by Dr. Daniel Drake, with an extensive collection of fossils and specimens. But it later became a “dime museum” or “cabinet of curiosities” — something akin to a 20th century circus sideshow — under the leadership of Drake’s curator Joseph Dorfeuille.
Muente was looking through old newspapers for mentions when she found an 1834 advertisement from the museum that surprised her. Also a writer (and former CityBeat contributor for visual art), she has now turned what she discovered into a novel, The Boy at the Museum.
“The advertisement I came across was for a ‘natural curiosity’ at the Western Museum and talked about 8-year-old Enos Stutsman, who was born without legs,” Muente says. “It said he was on display at the museum and that he had been recently examined by Dr. Drake who had authenticated him as a great natural monstrosity, or something like that. And then there was a very long quote from Dr. Drake that described the boy’s condition.”
“When I saw that ad, I thought, ‘This is really terrible to put this young boy on display like that,’ ” she continues. “And the specifics of the ad said he was going to be seen from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m. for a week. I thought, ‘Oh my Gosh. He’s 8 years old. What’s he doing for all that time?’ But the ad also said proceeds would aid his education. So there was this weird combination of the horrible but also the beneficent at the same time.”
Muente did research into Stutsman’s life and found he survived that traumatic experience well. “At age 17 he became a school teacher and he eventually became an attorney and helped broker acquisition of the Dakotas Territory.
So he had a successful career as an attorney. Someone had even written a book about that career.”
Muente’s novel imagines Stutsman’s time in Cincinnati — how he got here, who his family was, who befriended him, and his relationship with the prickly Dorfoy and the powerful Dr. Drake. It is self-published and available at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Taft Museum of Art, Amazon and barnesandnoble.com.
Her novel incorporates fascinating history about the weird and bizarre Western Museum. It was one of Cincinnati’s most unusual institutions ever.
It was under Dorfeuille’s leadership until 1839, but held on another 27 years after that. Located near the Public Landing, it easily attracted those just arriving in town via riverboat.
“It was especially known throughout the region for an exhibit it had called the Infernal Regions,” Muente says. “It was a shocking horror-show recreation of hell. Powers sculpted all the figures for that, mechanized them, and even — as I have him doing in the book — performed there. He’d put on a cloak, roam through the crowd and scare people.”
But Dorfeuille also kept Drake’s collection, too. “It still had a big natural history collection of minerals, fossils, antiquities, mastodon tusks, preserved scientific specimens,” Muente says. “Dorfeuille’s scrapbook is in the collection of the Historical Society and he has engravings cut out of all these and things pasted in relating to deformed animals and human beings.”
But Dorfeuille didn’t stop with science. Muente also found ads for a “mermaid” — a monkey with some kind of fishtail, she thinks — and a “New Zealand cannibal chief” tattooed by islanders. That was a hoax, she says.
Muente acknowledges she’s fascinated by the world of these 19th century “dime” museums. But she also wonders how far we’ve progressed.
“It’s so weird the things people found entertaining then, although they’re not that unlike what we watch now on reality television. You can watch a show about a 300-pound woman or a 600-pound man. So people still want this kind of stuff.”
Muente will discuss THE BOY AT THE MUSEUM 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 9 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Rookwood Pavilion.
UPDATE: For phonetic reasons, the author uses “Dorfoy” for the spelling of the curator in her novel and explains her change in an author’s note, and this story originally used that spelling, too. It has now been corrected.