Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Chamber of Horrors (Waxworks)

Melted and damaged mannequins after fire in
Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in London, 1925
Marie Tussaud's great-grandson, Louis Tussaud opened his own wax museum at 207 Regent Street, London, on Christmas Eve 1890. The establishment would compete with his great-grandmother's more famous Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. Though the waxworks at Regent Street were destroyed in a fire on 20 June 1891, Louis ran a successful venture and his museums around the world are now owned by Ripley Entertainment.

The viewing public's approach to the figures in wax museums has always varied from judgmental mockery to silent horror, the latter of which Madame Tussaud's capitalized on by making lifelike figures of the most infamous murderers on trial. A court case, involving murder and a wax museum established the the principle of "libel by innuendo" in English law, and Monson v Tussauds Ltd has been used to draw up defamation laws in many countries since.

From House of Wax (1953) to House of Wax (2005), waxworks form the basis of horror movies, and often included (still do) other attractions, like the hall of mirrors, chamber of horrors, and mock torture chambers. Although they are open year round, they've always tempted those who are in the mood for aa fright, as on Halloween Night. Suitably, the wax figure originated with funeral practices.

House of Wax (1953)
During Royal Funerals in the Middle Ages, mourners traditionally carried the fully-dressed corpse on top of the coffin, so that everyone could see it. Hot weather and the condition of the body sometimes made this practice unappealing. Gradually, was effigies began to stand in for the role of the corpse, and because the figures were fully dressed, only the head and hands needed to be sculpted out of wax.   When the funeral ended, the church would often put these figures on display for paying visitors.

The funeral effigy
(without clothes) of
Elizabeth of York,
mother of King
Henry VIII, 1503,
Westminster Abbey
Gradually, sculpting lifelike figures out of wax became a profitable art form. Figures were created for viewing by those patrons of the arts, the European aristocracy, especially in France.

King Louis XIV's court painter and sculptor, Antoine Benoist exhibited forty-three wax figures that resembled Louis XIV's Royal Circle at his home in Paris. After this exhibition, Louis XIV permitted the figures to be viewed throughout the country, which attracted the attention of King James II, who invited Benoist to England in 1684.

In England, Benoist made figures of the English Royal Court. Soon, Benoist was making wax figures of living royals all over Europe.

Mrs. Mary opened London's first wax museum in 1711. The 'Moving Wax Works of the Royal Court of England' included 140 lifelike figures, some of which used clockwork to create moving parts.

With London's location established on Sherlock Holmes' Baker Street, Madame Tussaud's is still the most famous name in wax museums.

Wax head of Mary
Pearcey (1890) from
Madame Tussaud's
Chamber of Horrors.
As in the Murder of Mrs and Baby Hogg, Madame Tussaud's would often purchase the actual evidence from horrifying crimes to accessorize the figures in their Chamber of Horrors. In 1893, they tried to do the same thing with the Arddlamont Murder Case, but were sued for defamation the following year, when the accused killer was found not guilty. This didn't stop the Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors from carrying on as it always had. The Chamber of Horrors went on to exhibit: George Chapman, Hawley Harvey Crippen, Henri Landru, Buck Ruxton, Bruno Hauptmann, John Christie, John George Haigh, George Joseph Smith and Charles Manson.

Brisbane Courier, 31 May 1895.
As in this article from the Brisbane Courier (31 May 1895), the best waxworks became a place to meditate on the worst aspects of human life. Without access to television news and full-color crime reporting, the figures in the waxworks' Chamber of Horrors became a place to look killers in the eye, while everyone was still terrified of Jack the Ripper and obsessed with Sherlock Holmes.

By the 1890s, most major cities had a wax museum, but the popularity of these went into decline during the twentieth century, as waxworks had to compete with other attractions.

Throughout October 2014, I will be sharing the halloween-themed stories of 1890s London. Check back often!

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