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Cover Story: An Unusual Dynasty

Deconstructing James Grosjean, the mystery man of Lima, Ohio

By Christopher Kemp · January 3rd, 2002 · Cover Story
  James Grosjean, Ohio�s man of mystery
Jon Hughes/photopresse.com

James Grosjean, Ohio�s man of mystery

It is midnight on April 10, 1901, and James Grosjean is in his Lima, Ohio, workshop, crouched over his latest display case, which he has labeled the "Special Albino Collection."

In a few days, he'll carefully pack it up and load it onto a train bound for Niagara Falls. For the next few years, it will travel across the country, from Niagara Falls to New York City, Chicago and then across the Midwest, back to Ohio.

Inside the wooden case, albino specimens of more than 40 species of bird and animal have been embalmed, stuffed and arranged by Grosjean. According to the yellowing description card at the bottom of the polished casework, his display of albino animals was the "Finest and Largest Collection in the United States" -- a claim no one could qualify and no one really wanted to dispute.

Here's a sample from the index card: No. 30 is an albino porcupine from Rockport, Maine; No. 38 is a naturally colored flying squirrel from Coney Island, N.Y.; and No. 45 is an albino rat that came simply from "Indian Territory."

In 1901, a young Henry Ford was learning his trade in grimy machine shops, people were cautiously opening the first copies of Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, the great composer Verdi was dying and Marie Curie was coining the term "radioactivity." Meanwhile, James Grosjean was back in Lima, collecting and stuffing his albino animals. Let's just say he had a vision.

Today, the fruits of this vision sit in a small windowless room on the ground floor of the Allen County Museum, on Lima's Market Street, inside a sturdy, wooden case that stretches toward the ceiling. In all, the Special Albino Collection contains albino specimens of 27 species of bird and 16 species of mammal. For nearly every albino specimen, a naturally colored counterpart is included, tucked away somewhere among the artificial branches.

The case is separated into a large top compartment and a smaller bottom one. In the crowded upper section, a knotty artificial tree trunk provides perches and ledges for all sorts of birds and small mammals. At the top of the trunk, an albino red-tailed kite looks down on some of the larger mammals below: A sleepy, padded-looking albino porcupine with bright orange teeth, an opossum, a fox and a naturally colored porcupine.

In the lower section, next to a normal dun-colored pheasant, there's a human skull. According to the printed key, the skull came from Cuba, traveling farther than any other specimen in the case.

It's been sawn neatly all around, high up on the brow, and the top has been lifted off like a cap, hinged on one side and fixed at a jaunty angle, allowing museum visitors to see inside. There, huddled in the dry, bony hollows of the cranium, two young sparrows wait in a nest of leaves and twigs. An albino sparrow is perched lightly on the edge of the skull with food for its young.

"This," coos an elderly volunteer museum guide, "is my favorite exhibit."

She reaches gingerly behind the case and flicks a switch. At first, nothing happens. Then, as a loud breezy hum slowly builds deep within the case, a woodpecker reluctantly throws itself against a tree trunk. Strange. A porcupine and an opossum start to nod. Weird. An albino red squirrel runs up and down a knotty tree trunk, while its non-albino counterpart pokes its head from a nearby hole. Surreal.

Suddenly, branches on either side of the case revolve, displaying previously hidden species of bird, and the hinged gray top of the Cuban skull rises to reveal its contents, before slowly falling again, like a clam.

This, alone, is worth the trip.

A man of many curiosities
More than a century later, however, no one knows how James Grosjean collected so many rare albino specimens or why he did it.

Assembling such a large collection couldn't have been easy, especially in 1901; it must have taken patience and careful organization, with Grosjean relying on assistance from people across the United States to find and collect each unusual specimen. As listed on the identification key, the animals came from as far afield as Nebraska, Iowa, California, New York, South Carolina and Canada. How he managed to mechanize the animals -- filling the cases with rods, wheels and motors -- is just another mystery among many.

"Mister Grosjean was kind of a renaissance man, I suppose," says John Carnes, curator of collections at the Allen County Museum. "Apparently, he did the taxidermy work on the animals. He was a funeral director at one point."

Elsewhere in the museum, there are ancient Egyptian coffin lids, Abyssinian musical instruments and strange star-shaped violins, all of them donated by Grosjean. The albino collection has been on display at the this museum since its opening in 1956, says Carnes, when it was moved from the historical MacDonell house that stands next door.

"It has its own room, of course," Carnes says. "It was a pretty popular exhibit. I think that small room was constructed for that purpose, it was designed into the building."

The museum keeps folders full of records, documents and newspaper clippings connected with Lima, the history of Allen County and some of its prominent residents. There is even a folder with the name "James Grosjean" penciled vertically down its side, full of crispy old documents.

But there are no records at the museum, says Carnes, that explain how Grosjean collected albino specimens of 47 different species, whether they were sent to him or if he collected them himself, traveling cross county to pick up each specimen as it was found.

Among the buggies, the shoemaker's tools and the presidential buttons, there are other unusual exhibits at the museum. Downstairs, to the left of the stairwell, almost hidden away, is a large wall-hung display titled: "Objects Removed From Esophagus, Bronchial Tree (Lungs), And Larynx of Patients of Drs. Estey C Yingling and Walter E Yingling."

Were they a father and son team? Two brothers? Who knows?

Each object has been tied with string to a small square of white card and labeled with the name and age of the patient and the date the object was removed.

There are pennies, chicken bones and safety pins; there is sweet corn, a hairpin and a rusty, one-inch screw; and there is a plastic red heart, donated to the collection on Feb. 25, 1952, by Herbert A. Nold III, aged eight months.

Even so, the oddest and most unsettling exhibits in the museum are still those made by Grosjean more than 100 years ago, in his Lima workshop; there are more examples of his work here in the museum. On the main floor, in a room with the words "Noah's Ark" written over its doorway, there are three more Grosjean exhibits on display.

Grosjean's mechanical model of Noah's Ark is one of them, and presumably it gave its name to this little room when the museum opened. Stored in a large wooden cabinet measuring 5 feet tall and 7 feet wide and currently out of order, it has its own Mount Ararat, which is strewn with little human skeletons, animal bones, old, dried rat and fish carcasses and shed snakeskins. There are labels that helpfully read, "Showing Everything Dead and Destroyed After Deluge."

In another polished case there are 104 species of stuffed bird, everything from the North American bluejay to the Mexican Bronze-Capped Mot Mot. Central to the exhibit is a large, working model of a Ferris wheel, decorated with light bulbs and tape.

Above Grosjean's fourth cabinet is posted the title "This Case Contains Specimens of Species That Are Almost Extinct." Inside are duck-billed platypuses, an ivory-billed woodpecker, South American condors and hornbills, with bright, curved beaks and neat, dark feathers.

Perfect timing
James Eugene Grosjean was born in Wayne County, Ohio on March 1, 1861. By the time he moved to Lima in 1892, he was married with two children and had worked as an undertaker and furniture-maker for more than 10 years. That same year, Grosjean opened his business on Market Street as an undertaker and embalmer.

A little farther west along Market Street, on the same block as the museum, is the Lima Public Library, a bright, airy building with large windows, banks of computers and a quiet, well-stocked reference section. There, on a shelf marked "local history," is a dusty copy of A Standard History of Allen County, Ohio, written by William Rusler and published in 1921. On an unnumbered page, facing page 130, there's a black-and-white photograph of James Grosjean.

But the photograph tells us almost nothing about the man: He's gray-haired, balding and avuncular, with neat round-framed spectacles that sit lightly on the bridge of his nose. Disappointingly, he is unremarkable.

According to the accompanying biography, "He is a staunch supporter of every movement which promises to be of benefit to the community in a material, civic or moral way, and because of his excellent personal qualities he enjoys a well-deserved popularity."

Between Rusler's A Standard History of Allen County, Ohio, a 1906 copy of Richmond and Arnold's History of Allen County, Ohio, and Representative Citizens, and The 1976 History of Allen County, Ohio, by John R Carnes, we learn quite a bit about James Grosjean: He was a member of the Market Street Presbyterian Church, the Allen County Historical Society, the Free and Accepted Masons and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows; he fathered two children, Mary, who died when she was 3, and Pearl, who married a local socialite in 1912 and later died childless; he opened a shoe store in 1902 and invented a new type of rubber sole in 1920, hiring a man to walk across the country "as a demonstration of the wearability of the product."

But Grosjean's exhibits hardly get a mention. Of the four cabinets in the Allen County Museum, he completed the exotic bird exhibit first, collecting more than 100 different species, placing them in a case he made himself around a model Ferris wheel and listing them by name and country of origin.

He placed the case in the front window of his undertaker's on West Market Street in December 1897. According to a report in The Lima Times-Democrat dated Dec. 22, 1897, the exhibit was a "perfectly constructed miniature Ferris wheel upon which is mounted many of the rarest and most beautiful specimens of birds that could be secured, including all the fowls of gay plumage, from the parrot to the Bird of Paradise."

Two years later, Grosjean was working on two more exhibits -- the albino collection and the mechanical model of Noah's Ark.

"I worked with Mr. Grosjean several months on his exhibits," recalled Grosjean's assistant, Edwin Gordon, in a 1959 letter to The Lima Reporter. "I did the electrical wiring on the albino case and under his direction most of the wiring on Noah's Ark and the others. ... I can see Mr. Grosjean adjusting rods and wheels so that all timing was perfect."

Together, Grosjean and Gordon finished the Noah's Ark exhibit in February 1901 and displayed it alongside other artifacts from his collection, in a makeshift museum that took up a corner room of Lima's Masonic building.

"A full grown South American Condor and a young bird of the same rare species have been added to Mr. Grosjean's valuable collection and will be alone worth the price of admission to see," stated a Feb. 15, 1901, report in The Lima Times-Democrat. A year later, Grosjean placed these specimens in another cabinet, next to duck-billed platypuses and hornbills, to complete the endangered species exhibit that now sits in the Allen County Museum.

In the spring of 1901, after months spent perfecting his exhibits, Grosjean transported them northeast to Niagara Falls, N.Y., where he opened a museum to display his artifacts and mechanical inventions.

"We worked nights," his assistant Gordon wrote decades later, "and the hurry was because he was preparing the entire exhibit for a 'sideshow' exhibit at Niagara Falls during the Buffalo Exhibition (sic)."

Between the months of May and November 1901, the Pan-American Exposition attracted more than 8 million visitors to Buffalo, N.Y. Built on a 342-acre site, the exposition celebrated important industrial advances, using electricity generated by a transformer plant at Niagara Falls.

Grosjean, though, was more interested in the Midway, the exposition grounds' entertainment and amusement section. Most likely, he thought his mechanical exhibits had as much to offer as the other models and displays found there.

Taken from a daily program of the exposition, dated Aug. 3, 1901, the Midway included the following eclectic attractions: a scenographic reproduction of the Johnstown Flood; the Ostrich Farm; Miss Helen Rossi's 8 Jolly British Girls; Bonner, the horse with the human brain; Chiquita "The Doll Lady," at 26 inches tall, the smallest person in the world; dancing girls; and man-eating tigers, grizzlies and lions.

Difficult though it is to believe, Grosjean's exhibits didn't make the grade. Competition for a spot on the Midway was fierce, with more than 5,000 hopeful entrepreneurs requesting space to display their exhibits. Instead, Grosjean settled for Niagara Falls, opening his museum on May 1, 1901, the same day the Pan-American Exposition opened to visitors.

"During the latter part of the 19th century and the early 20th century, there were often fairs and all sorts of exhibits that were held along the Niagara, near the mouth of the falls," says Kathleen Delaney, an archivist at the State University of New York at Buffalo. "On part of this land there were all sorts of honky-tonk fairs and theme parks; that was the sort of atmosphere. So, I think that Grosjean was probably involved in that sort of environment."

Native American Indians would come to the brink of the falls, says Delaney, to sell wampum stones and leather belts to tourists. There, the Indians would mix with stallholders, barkers and confidence tricksters, all fighting to attract the crowds, sell some trinkets and make some money.

"There's a theory that there's negative ions in the air," says Delaney, "and when you go up there you get electrified. People say that all the time, on both sides of the river. It attracts schemers."

Grosjean spent July and August 1901 traveling back and forth between Lima and Niagara Falls, conducting business in both locations. But in September 1901, something happened that changed Grosjean's plans. According to a Times-Democrat news report: "All attractions were ordered out of the city, not on account of any of the character such as Mr. Grosjean's museum was, but all were ordered out in order that there could be no discrimination and the offensive attractions disposed of."

James Grosjean had been closed down. This isn't surprising, Delaney says. When exposition attendance figures failed to meet expectations, local officials suspected it was because visitors were bypassing Buffalo to visit Niagara Falls instead.

"If they were spending their money there, they weren't spending it at the exposition," Delaney says. "The city fathers of Niagara Falls were getting really disgusted with that happening."

In a bold move, the city fathers told them all to leave -- the schemers, the carnies, the barkers, the hucksters, the shysters and the confidence tricksters, and even James Grosjean. Undeterred, and having already paid his lease, Grosjean converted his museum into a restaurant instead.

McKinley's cup and saucer
On Sept. 6, 1901, President William McKinley visited the Pan-American Exposition. At a public reception held in the exposition's Temple of Music, McKinley was shot by Leon Czolgosz.

Czolgosz, an unemployed factory worker, had traveled from Cleveland three days earlier after attending a lecture by Emma Goldman, the anarchist, feminist and labor advocate. Incidentally, Goldman once wrote: "Anarchism, whose roots, as it were, are part of nature's forces, destroys, not healthful tissue, but parasitic growths that feed on the life's essence of society. It is merely clearing the soil from weeds and sagebrush, that it may eventually bear healthy fruit."

It was incendiary words like these that got Czolgosz so excited.

Over the next week, McKinley himself began to resemble healthy fruit less and less, gradually developing gangrene, to which he finally succumbed on Sept. 13. Czolgosz was executed in the electric chair six weeks later, after a speedy trial that attracted little opposition.

The night before he was shot, McKinley and his wife had stayed at the Cataract Hotel, on the falls, and before traveling to Buffalo on Sept. 6, the President and the First Lady first visited Niagara Falls, dining at the International Hotel, not far from Grosjean's lunch room.

Perhaps falling prey to Niagara Falls' negative ions, when Grosjean heard about the assassination attempt he left his lunchroom immediately in search of presidential artifacts. Characteristically, he was successful.

In a letter to The Times-Democrat, Grosjean described how he obtained some of McKinley effects: "I secured the after-dinner cup and saucer, ice cream plate and menu card used by President McKinley at his last meal which he ate three hours before he was shot and also secured the lap robe and whip that were used in the coach in which he rode from the hotel and a photograph that was taken just before he stepped into the cab, the last photograph that was taken of him by his consent."

So McKinley died, Teddy Roosevelt was sworn in, Grosjean added to his catalog of artifacts, Czolgosz was executed and the exposition closed soon after in disarray.

Precisely what happened next to Grosjean's cabinets isn't known. At some point, he must have brought them all back to Lima: During the infamous Dayton Flood in March 1913, more than 10 inches of rain fell in four days, killing 300 people and badly damaging Grosjean's Noah's Ark exhibit. In 1966, it was renovated and placed on display again in the museum.

Incidentally, the Noah's Ark exhibit was renovated in the 1960s by a Lima resident named John Carnes, also the name of the man who built the Ferris wheel for Grosjean's mechanical bird display in 1897. The present-day curator of the Allen County Museum, yet another John Carnes, assures me gently that this is all just a coincidence.

Grosjean's three other cases fared slightly better, surviving the 1913 flood and traveling extensively in the following years. According to the Allen County Museum archives, the exhibits traveled to stores including Macy's in New York and Marshall Field's in Chicago as part of a traveling show. Neither Macy's nor Marshall Field's could confirm this, however.

"It is quite possible though," says Tony Jahn, Marshall Field's archivist and historian. "They may have used it during the World's Fair in 1933, '34. You know, something different. It was very common for us to bring in unique items."

And they don't come more unique than Grosjean's exhibits built between 1897 and 1902, a century ago. Even so, we simply don't know what happened to them -- where they went, when they went there, who saw them or why Grosjean even built them in the first place.

On Dec. 1, 1938, James Grosjean died of pneumonia and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Lima. More than 60 years later, three wooden cabinets of stuffed animals, a broken-down model of Noah's Ark and a star-shaped violin are all that remain of his unusual dynasty, sitting stoutly in the cool of the Allen County Museum. ©



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