Museum of oddities to debut in Gettysburg
Weeks before the opening of the Gettysburg Dime Museum, Mark Kosh, 47, noted the frenzied state of his unsettling attractions.
The rooms of the museum are a whirlwind of weird, with a taxidermied albino elk sitting in front of a replica of Daniel Lambert, "the fattest man on earth." Nearby, a coffin with a human skeleton, often used in rituals of Odd Fellows, the 18th-century British fraternity, is lying in a coffin on the floor. If you dig a little deeper, you might find a lock of Charles Manson’s hair or an exhibit claiming to showcase Abraham Lincoln’s last bowel movement.
“I’m so unorganized right now because we’ve been having to do work,” said Kosh. “As we’ve been working on one thing, I’ve had to move everything out of the way, and I’ve moved this stuff so many times that I don’t know where anything is anymore.”
As Kosh describes the oddities he plans to display, delving into the details of where they came from, how much they cost and their authenticity, his passion shines through. He said he has been collecting the items for close to 20 years, estimating the number of items in his collection is in the hundreds.
The albino elk, he explained, came from an antique store in Lancaster.
“I got a good deal on him,” said Kosh. “I couldn’t pass him up.”
Kosh, a retired state trooper from Lancaster County, moved to and bought the building on 224 to 228 Baltimore St. in Gettysburg for the purpose of developing the museum, which he plans to open in a few weeks. He still has a few municipal hurdles before setting a date, but expects the museum to open in April.
Kosh first developed an interest in sideshows and oddities when he traveled with his family from Pittsburgh to the Canfield Fair in Ohio. Growing up and visiting various sideshows, he developed his affinity for mummified cats, alligator men, shrunken heads and all things strange or creepy. He could never walk past a sideshow when visiting a fair or carnival.
Kosh also said he is into horror films and has driven as far as Florida to pick up a gaff, the term for a realistic prop used in sideshows, from Mark Frierson, whose work has been featured in Rob Zombie films.
Many of Kosh’s artifacts were on loan to the American Dime Museum in Baltimore, which closed in late 2006.
“People really loved it the dime museum down there,” said Kosh. “It was a great museum. I loved it. Everyone I talked to loved it.”
Dime museums got their name for costing 10 cents during the height of their popularity during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The museums featured exhibits, including freak shows and pseudo-science, designed to appeal to diverse audiences for a cheap cost.
The reality of dime museums is that several of the items are gaffs that make visitors question the authenticity of each exhibit.
“You weren’t quite sure if what you’re looking at was born that way,” said James Taylor, one of the co-founders of the American Dime Museum. “It’s one of the joys of the dime museum.”
Taylor got to know Kosh through Kosh’s involvement with the museum in Baltimore. Taylor said that they often contracted Kosh’s trailer-mounted show, a standalone Kosh held at festivals, to be set up in front of the American Dime Museum.
Taylor said Kosh is well-outfitted for opening a dime museum based on his knowledge of and passion for the subculture.
“He hasn’t stopped collecting,” said Taylor. “He’s always had a good sense for this stuff. That’s always gonna be a plus in this business.”
As a retired state trooper, Kosh’s interest in the world of sideshow oddities may seem at odds with his image. He said his wife, Regina, found it strange at first, but now she is a “convert,” working to refurbish some of the exhibits for the opening.
Taylor said he found it surprising initially that a state trooper like Kosh would have a passion for this scene.
“You never know what people’s interests are outside of work,” said Taylor, adding that, rather than carnies and morticians, the people he knows in the industry have careers like restaurant owners and defense contractors.
Kosh said his police buddies got a kick out of his hobby. After he retired in January 2015, he wanted something different to pursue.
“It wasn’t much of a transition,” said Kosh. “I’ve been doing the sideshows and things for years.”
Kosh said it can be a costly hobby. His most expensive item is a human shrunken head, derived from a practice of the Jivaro Indians, which he bought for $8,500.
The Gettysburg Dime Museum will also include a room filled with serial killer memorabilia, including artwork from John Wayne Gacy and Nicolas Claux, as well as a life-size replica of Gacy as his alter ego, Pogo the clown. This section of the museum will be segregated and include a warning for children, said Kosh.
Kosh is hoping to keep the museum kid-friendly and said he selected the Gettysburg location because of the built-in tourism.
“The tourist traffic is already here,” said Kosh. “We intended to open up the museum somewhere, and this just seemed like a good place to do it.”
From his experience owning a dime museum, Taylor said the key to success is making the museum a tourist attraction rather than a destination spot, like “Ripley’s with an edge.” He said he expects the Gettysburg Dime Museum to be a draw for people “sick of looking at big piles of cannonballs.”
“If we weren't pitching new ways to get people in, there was no one walking through the door,” Taylor said of his time in Baltimore. “I think Mark could have chosen a lot less wisely than he did.”
Kosh said he plans to hold events, like guest speakers and screenings, at the location.
Carl Whitehill, the director of communications for Destination Gettysburg, acknowledged the singularity of Kosh’s new museum.
“While the Gettysburg Dime Museum may seem non-traditional in the sense of what many think of the visitor experience in the Gettysburg area, the region continues to attract a diversity of attractions and other ways for visitors and local residents to enjoy themselves,” he said.
Although Kosh said he has not set a price for admission, he believes attendants will be modestly charged at less than $10 per ticket.
“We don’t want to kill anybody if they’re coming in with a family of four or five,” he said.
As Kosh reorganizes the layout in preparation for the debut in a few weeks, he said he thinks his dime museum will be a good fit for the area.
“It’ll give kids something else to do here,” he said. “You can only look at so many monuments out on the battlefield.”