Posts Tagged ‘New York City in the 1880s’

A Bowery photographer’s freak show portraits

September 8, 2011

Between 1870 and 1890, bearded girls, dog-faced boys, giants, midgets, fat ladies, lobster-clawed men, and other human oddities sat for photographer Charles Eisenmann.

A German immigrant who opened a studio on the Bowery off Prince Street, Eisenmann focused “almost exclusively on the ‘freaks’ of the circuses, sideshows, and living museums of New York’s Bowery area,” states Syracuse University’s Ronald G. Becker Collection of Charles Eisenmann Photographs.

Eisenmann captured portraits of many of the human attractions exhibited by P.T. Barnum, whose hugely popular museum on Broadway and Ann Street spawned the dime museums near Eisenmann’s studio.

What was his attraction to freaks? As far as anyone knows, Eisenmann never said.

In a city crowded with portrait studios and the Bowery getting rougher, tackier, and more honky-tonk every year, perhaps it was simply a good way to make a living.

When the Eden Musee thrilled 23rd Street

June 22, 2011

The Eden Musee opened at 55 West 23rd Street in 1884—and New York had never seen anything like it.

Imagine an entertainment mecca that featured grisly and gaudy wax displays: think Queen Victoria, President Arthur, and an imagined scene from the Spanish Inquisition.

There was also a “winter garden” concert hall and periodic bookings of notable people at the time, such as Sitting Bull.

And don’t forget the robot named Ajeeb who challenged customers to a game of chess (a real human chess champion was hidden inside).

All this could be experienced for just 50 cents. No wonder New Yorkers packed the French Renaissance building off Sixth Avenue in the newly chic Madison Square area.

As the years went on, the Eden Musee “resort” had to up the ante. They held an annual orchid show, hosted vaudeville acts, even showed the first motion pictures.

Movies turned out to be its downfall. Audiences no longer wanted to see wax figures and live shows; they craved film.

A June 8, 1915 New York Times headline put it this way: “Eden Musee Faces Bankruptcy Court: Northward Movement of Stores and Moving Picture Craze Hurts Wax Works.”

But for more than 30 years, the place had a good run.