Source: Chris Brown, "Wax museum tells story of John Brown," The Journal [Martinsburg, WV], May 21, 2007. Photo by Jason Turner for The Journal.
The John Brown Wax Museum in Harpers Ferry has been a popular destination for visitors to the area since it in opened in the 1950s, according to manager Freida Kidwell.
Kidwell said the grisly tableaus of Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and subsequent execution frequently terrify as much as teach. Kidwell said she often hears from visitors about how scared they were during their childhood visits to the museum.
“I get a lot of those. People say their parents brought them through and it scared them,” Kidwell said.
Despite the horror-inducing images, the John Brown Wax Museum remains a popular destination for school-age children, who are often brought through as part of their history lessons.
The museum, which is at 168 High St. in Harpers Ferry, is advertised as an examination of “the exciting life of John Brown, from youth to the gallows,” and the three-story building delivers just that, complete with recorded narration and some other surprises.
With 87 carved wax figures, all arranged in scenes from Brown’s life, one gets a tangible sense of the path toward Brown’s violent raid on Harpers Ferry’s federal arsenal in 1859.
Visitors begin with a scene from Brown’s childhood, during which he befriended the son of a slave, only to see the boy horribly beaten by his master for some minor transgression. The displays lead the viewer through Brown’s career as an abolitionist, operator on the underground railroad that transported slaves to freedom, and as a “fanatical” opponent of slavery-sympathizers.
Some of the more grisly scenes depict Brown leading brutal attacks to avenge the killing of antislavery activists in Kansas; the ironic death of black porter Hayward Shepherd, the first person to die during Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry; and Brown’s last stand, bloody and holed up in the Harpers Ferry Engine House where U.S. Marines led by Robert E. Lee finally captured him.
Some of the scenes are depicted with enough realism to be genuinely startling.
When the wax model of the dying Shepherd begins to “breathe” his last, the motion is achieved through hydraulics. However, it is realistic enough to be disturbing to younger or fainthearted visitors.
The final scene on the museum tour depicts Brown being led to the gallows in Charlestown, Va. — now Charles Town, W.Va., on the morning of Dec. 2, 1859, where he was executed for treason. The wax figure of Brown looks defiantly up at visitors as a recording narrates the scene, calling him “majestic” in his efforts to erase the “sin of slavery from the conscience of the United States.”
Mary Jane Vallas, an employee of the museum, said as many as 90 visitors — sometimes more — tour the attraction on any good business day. The museum had a few thousand visitors last year, Kidwell said.
Vallas said school-age children were a large part of the visitors to the museum, but such visits were usually arranged before hand by schools and teachers. She said walk-ins by teenagers were rare.
“All the kids that are here today don’t want to pay,” she said Thursday.
The John Brown Wax Museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. all week long, with slightly longer hours in the summer.
— Staff writer Chris Brown can be reached at (304) 725-6581, or at firstname.lastname@example.org