Who Knew? Cincinnati's Western Museum was 19th Century home to the offbeat, odd & outrageous

CINCINNATI - The Tri-State is home to many fascinating facts, offbeat oddities, and "I did not know that," moments. With that in mind, WCPO asks "Who Knew?"

"The Western Museum in Cincinnati probably owned the nation's most extensive collection of regional specimens in the 1820s and 1930s but its displays were not profitable enough to keep the institution in business. In the hopes of resuscitating the museum's fortunes, the owner of the museum built optical “machines” and cosmoramas that offered visitors a grander setting in which to behold pictures of local landmarks and local people." --  by Theo Padnos in his dissertation, "Here is a cabinet of great curiosities" Collecting the past on the American frontier

What is it? Western Museum
Where can I see it? Cincinnati Natural History Museum
Who Knew? Tamera Muente, author of "The Boy at the Museum"

Cincinnati is home to a plethora of museums, some with fascinating back stories. Long before it was part of Union Terminal, the Natural History Museum originated in the early 19th Century as more of a sideshow gallery than a repository of science and information.

Q&A with local author Tamera Muente

1. What was the Western Museum?

The Western Museum was the predecessor to the current Natural History Museum in Cincinnati. It was founded as a serious natural history collection by Dr. Daniel Drake , but was not financially feasible. It was taken over by Joseph Dorfeuille, who believed that sensational and shocking exhibits would bring in crowds and make the museum a financial success.

2. How did Dorfeuille take the lead at the museum?

Dr. Daniel Drake gave the museum to Dorfeuille, who had contributed many items to the collection. The lack of success under Drake's supervision had rendered the artifacts worthless to the point where they nor the museum could be sold.

3. How did Dorfeuille reinvent the museum?

Dorfeuille realized the truths of science were not as compelling to visitors as the irregularities of nature. His plan was to engage people's emotions, rather than their intellect, which led to the Western Museum becoming a popular entertainment venue.

4. What could visitors see in the collection?

In a sort of pre-P.T. Barnum fashion, the museum displayed natural curiosities like large fossils and preserved, deformed animals; hoaxes passed off as real objects, such as the head of a cannibal king and sensational wax dioramas from history and bizarre current events.

"Dotted about the displays were curiosities of doubtful provenance: the head of an Egyptian mummy, a sepulchral lamp from Pompeii, and such shams as a mermaid constructed by stitching the head and hands of a monkey to the body of a fish." -- from Curiosities Too Numerous to Mention: Early Regionalism and Cincinnati's Western Museum,  by M. H. Dunlop (American Quarterly)

5. What bizarre occurrences happened there?

Dorfeuille also staged performers, and reportedly gave the crowd a hit of laughing gas before some shows. What a wild place! 

Connect with WCPO Contributor Paige E. Malott on Twitter: @Paigetastic01  and check out her blog CincyWhimsy.com

Check back next week for another edition of "Who Knew?" If you have an tip, idea or question email: holly.edgell@wcpo.com.

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