Joseph Merrick

Special October Post: Spooky Suggestions for Halloween!

I don’t like to play favourites (actually, I don’t know why I said that, because I totally do), but Halloween is probably my most beloved holiday…at least in terms of atmosphere and decor.  With that in mind, I do write about a lot of weird/creepy places on here, so I thought I’d link you to some of them in one central location, in case you’re looking for places to visit in October.  Like the content of the blog itself, most of the places are in the UK or Ohio, but there are some options for Continental Europeans as well!

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Mansfield Reformatory in Ohio is the subject of one of my most popular posts (right after the Arnold Museum, of course), and it is a really cool place – it’s so dilapidated and dark inside, you feel as though you’re trespassing, even though you’re not.  In the month of October they are open for special ghost events and their haunted house, but I do think it’s also well worth visiting during their summer season, when you’re left on your own to explore.

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On the subject of jails (or gaols), the Cork County Gaol in Ireland is another cool one.  They not only have audio tours on Walkmans (in the colour of your choosing!) but also have wax figures, and re-created cells.  The whole building is damp and cold, as if you can still feel the misery of the prisoners held here.

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Kelvedon Hatch in Essex is creepy in a nuclear apocalypse sense – we were the only visitors on the day we went, and there’s not even an admissions desk, so we were really able to get the experience of being the last survivors of a nuclear holocaust.  Plus, you’re trapped underground, and you’ve no idea what might be waiting at the other end of the tunnel!

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Eyam, in Derbyshire, is a village that was completely decimated by the 1665 plague, carried here from London via fleas in a box of cloth.  Most of the original plague houses remain, and the village is home to a nice little museum all about the epidemic.  It’s also quite near to Bakewell, so you can stop for a seasonally appropriate tea afterwards.

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The Dr. Guislain Museum in Gent, Belgium, is housed in a still working mental institution.  Need I say more?  Well, the extremely excellent museum includes art done by the mentally ill, and horrible torture devices used to “treat” mental patients of yore.  A must-see if you’re in Belgium!

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I also adore the Royal London Hospital Museum in Whitechapel.  I’m really interested in Joseph Merrick’s life, and the museum is THE place to see his skeleton and some of his possessions.  Lots of other medical stuff too, and the museum is free!

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If you’re creeped out by dolls, then Pollock’s Toy Museum in London is not the place for you (unless you’re trying to scare yourself, which I guess is pretty much the point of this whole post, so never mind).  Split between a Victorian and a Georgian house, which are side by side, Pollock’s involves a journey up narrow, winding staircases to view cases crammed with sad-eyed Victorian toys.   Just watch out for the doll room!

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Even though almost nothing is in English, the Police Museum of Copenhagen is still incredible (and incredibly gory).  The wall of murder weapons is not to be missed, even if it raises more questions than it answers (what IS the deal with that meat grinder?!).

Finally, here’s some other places I LOVE (some of which can be found in my Favourite Places page), but haven’t got around to blogging about yet:

Mutter Museum, Philadelphia: The best medical museum I’ve seen yet (and I’ve seen a lot, as you’ve probably gathered).  There’s a giant colon, a lady whose fat turned to soap, and the liver from the original Siamese twins.

Thackray Museum, Leeds: Love the Thackray! They are the gold standard in authentic smells, and wax figures, and what I’ve compared every “street of yesteryear” to since (most of the other ones have been found lacking).  Oh yeah, did I mention it’s a medical museum?

Hunterian Museum, London: Yet another medical museum (sorry, I know I have a problem), this one excels at stuff in jars.  And has some cool war medicine stuff.

Museum Vrolik, Amsterdam: This is the last medical museum (for now), I promise!  Museum Vrolik specialises in weird fetuses, including cyclopes, all manner of conjoined twins, and genetic abnormalities you never knew existed.

Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle: I probably shouldn’t be putting this museum in a Halloween roundup, because they aim to distance themselves from old stereotypes of witches, but this place is awesome, and I wanted to give it a mention.  Lots of witchy paraphernalia in a very picturesque village.

Hever Castle, Kent: This was Anne Boleyn’s childhood home, and even though the interior hasn’t been done any favours by the owners since, the exterior is still lovely, as are the gardens,  They have a yew maze, and do some autumnal decorating, but I am pretty much including it here because I spotted ghost cupcakes in their tearoom, and cheesy Halloween touches like that are hard to find in England.

Hampton Court, Surrey: This is meant to be one of the most haunted places in Britain, if not in the world.  I’ve never seen any ghosts, but that hasn’t stopped me from making many return visits to gawk at the rooms Henry VIII (and his many wives) inhabited.

Hellfire Caves, Buckinghamshire: These man-made caves are where members of the Georgian Hellfire club met, and, if the rumours are to be believed, took part in orgies and/or satanic rituals.  Even if the stories aren’t true, the caves are full of mannequins and spooky sound effects, and make an excellent day trip from London.

Lakeview Cemetery, Cleveland: I couldn’t end this list without including a place from my hometown, and Lakeview is probably my favourite cemetery in the world.  Splendid Victorian monuments abound, including Garfield’s tomb (you can see his and his wife’s coffins in the crypt), and the Haserot angel, which is guaranteed to give nightmares to Doctor Who fans. Cleveland’s Little Italy, which is just a street over, grew up around it because so many Italian stonemasons were hired to help build it, which should give you an idea of its size.  And that means you can get cavatelli and strawberry cassata cake after your visit.  What more excuse do you need?

London: Royal London Hospital Museum

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I’m shamelessly trying to lure you in with a picture of the best bit first.

I knew full well that the Royal London Hospital Museum had Joseph Merrick’s veiled hat-thing, but I hadn’t gone to visit it until now.  I fear I have only myself to blame (but in fairness to myself, the first time I went to Whitechapel, in a misguided attempt to see the streets where Jack the Ripper lurked, I was chased down the street by a gang of men until I fled into the tube station, so I was in no great hurry to return). Also, they’re not open on weekends, which didn’t really help either. The museum is not particularly easy to find, and involved cutting through the modern hospital, wandering around a courtyard for a while after the signs abruptly tailed off, going back in the hospital to ask for directions (and be met with a vague response), and some more wandering until finally spying another sign far down the street and at last finding the museum.  Of course, if you possess some sense of direction, this process can be greatly simplified by simply walking through the main entrance of the hospital opposite Whitechapel station, heading down the main hallway, and turning right onto Newark Street upon exiting the building.

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I was ultimately rewarded for my pains by stepping into a pleasantly cool room that I had all to myself, (not counting my boyfriend, but he’s fairly quiet and unobtrusive) which was filled with cases of some pretty wonderful stuff.  Whilst Joseph Merrick (the Elephant Man) was undoubtedly the most famous patient, the hospital was founded in 1740, so there’s been a quite a list of prominent names (including some famous Americans) connected with it over the years, and they have the artefacts to prove it!  These include a letter written by Benjamin Franklin, and another letter from George Washington, accompanied by a set of his false teeth.  I’m starting to wonder how many sets George actually had, as the Hunterian also has one, and I think I might have seen a pair in Edinburgh as well.  The man was the Imelda Marcos of teeth!  According to the Founding Foodies book (on the culinary contributions of the founding fathers (I actually own this book, so yes, I am a nerd.)), he enjoyed mush cakes with syrup for breakfast, so he must have spent the rest of his time gnawing on bones or something.

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There were a few other famous (or perhaps notorious, in one case) people featured here.  I seem to keep encountering Edith Cavell this days – she first came to my attention in Belgium at one of the WWI museums, and then I happened to be in Norwich, where she is buried.  The Royal London Hospital Museum has an entire case devoted to her fascinating story, and after leaving, I passed her statue next to Trafalgar Square on my way up Charing Cross Road for Malaysian roti (which was amazing, by the way), which I’d somehow never noticed before.  An arrogant pigeon was perched on her head.  There’s also a display case for Florence Nightingale, but I always thought she was a bit of a prude, so I’ll not devote more attention to her here. On the opposite end of the humanity spectrum, being in Whitechapel, the museum naturally has to include Jack the Ripper somewhere, and they oblige with a copy of a letter from “Jack” sent to London Hospital following the crimes.

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And of course, the museum doesn’t neglect poor Joseph Merrick.  The centre of the museum has a TV and bench where you can sit and watch videos about Merrick, (you’ll need the bench, as most of them are 20 minutes long) including one on the impact he’s had on modern conceptions of disability, which was of interest to me as I wrote my Master’s thesis on 18th century dwarfism (and disability); I was influenced in large part by William Hay’s Deformity, An Essay, written over 100 years before Merrick was even born. Seems the Georgians were more evolved in that area, as William Hay became an MP despite his hunchback.  But back to Merrick; the museum has the aforementioned hat that he used to shield himself from prying eyes, a signed photo of himself that he gave to a staff member, a replica of his skeleton, a card church he made, and his only surviving letter.  It’s quite a poignant little collection.

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The museum has plenty of other cool stuff, and not just relating to famous individuals either.  The cases in the main hallway cover the history of the museum, with patient records and menus, and portraits of the most influential doctors.  There’s also plenty of medical instruments, and a collection of nurse uniforms over the decades (they were never exactly keeping up with the style of the times).  I was pleasantly surprised at how much neat stuff they had, as I’ve been disappointed by London medical museums in the past (I’m looking at you, Dental Museum. Ugh, and that awful John Snow exhibit which was one of my first posts on here!).  It’s not terribly big, but I think is worthy of attention.  Oh, and admission is free, but I’m sure they’d be grateful if you dropped a little something into the donation box by the door!  4/5

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