Michigan Had Its Own “Chamber of Horrors” in the 1890s
You think today’s humans are fascinated with grisly murders and horror? Today doesn’t even compare to how murders, horror, and crime were just a casual pastime for many Americans. Michiganders were no slouches when it came to being entertained by the latest headlines and articles that detailed grisly murders in graphic detail.
Parents didn’t seem to find it necessary to shield their young children from these glaring, colorful news items, or even public hangings. Back in the 1800s when public hangings took place in the town square, or in the middle of main street, those executions were treated as public outings. Families would gather, set up picnics, take part in concessions and games, a town band, and maybe even a dance afterward. All that family fun centered around the public execution of a known criminal.
Tying all this together and backtracking even further, human wax figures seem to date back to the 1300s, with actual wax museums popping up in the early 1700s. In 1770, a wax museum in Paris, France debuted an exhibit titled the “Cave of Great Thieves” which became the seed for all future “Chamber of Horrors” displays in wax museums around the world.
Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in London became the most well-known wax museum on Earth, opening in 1835.
Then, in 1888, the Jack the Ripper murders made worldwide news…..they also inspired even more additions to various wax museums' “Chamber of Horrors” exhibits. Soon, wax figures of infamous murderers were put on display that depicted their most heinous atrocities. These exhibits were enhanced with re-creations of blood, gaping wounds, spilled organs, eyes rolled up toward the forehead, and other forms of graphic cruelty and horror.
And the public ate it up. Public executions (as previously mentioned) were still in vogue (the last U.S. public hanging in 1936) but what to do until the next one comes along? Go to a wax museum ‘Chamber of Horrors’ to get that adrenaline fix that’s only satiated with horror.
Not to be left out, Detroit installed its own Chamber of Horrors. Near the junction of Woodward & Monroe, the Wonderland opened in 1886 within the Temple Theatre and was a venue that featured variety shows, a museum, and the biggest stars of the day.
On the first floor of the theater was Wonderland’s “Chamber of Horrors” featuring over 100 wax criminals, murderers and their victims. The lines for this attraction were so long, people were spilling out into the street and waiting in anticipation to see these depictions they had heard so much about.
These exhibits did not hold back…the grislier, the better.
The morbid, the merrier.
Death scenes were so gruesome, hideous, and shocking, causing a number of straitlaced citizens to complain so loud, that it forced the Chamber to close down in 1890. That didn’t last, though. Soon, it was re-opened and the hours were extended. The people most fascinated with all this blood and gore were women. The ladies couldn’t get enough of it…so much so, that accommodations for the female customers had to be enlarged.
Once motion pictures became the “in” thing for the public, vaudeville shows and wax museums lost a huge chunk of their audience. The museum and Chamber of Horrors ceased to exist in 1930.
Wonderland/Temple Theatre was demolished in 1966. Currently, the address is known as One Campus Martius, 916 Woodward Avenue. Take a look at the photos below.