Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors in the 1800s

Philippe Mathé Curtius. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The forerunner to Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors was La Caverne des Grands Voleurs (The Cavern of the Great Thieves), founded by Madame Tussaud’s uncle and mentor, Philippe Mathé Curtius. At his Caverne visitors could linger and scrutinize the morbid and bloody details related to a murder, or they could view all the associated gruesomeness at the execution of the murderer.

In 1802, Madame Tussaud took several provocative wax figures of those condemned during the revolution and created a smaller version of Curtius’s Caverne in England. She then displayed these figures (such as the radical Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre) in the same room as Britain’s King George III. Some British visitors were offended, and “accordingly Madame Tussaud took the precaution of installing The Separate Room to which she could consign those who were not comfortably compatible with the portraits of the establishment – but were none the less interesting.”[1]

A Punch Title Page. Author’s collection.

The name of this Separate Room was first called the “Dead Room” or the “Black Room” because of its somber blackness. However, the room officially became the “Chamber of Horrors” in 1843 after Madame Tussaud used the term in an advertisement announcing that for an additional 6d visitors would be allowed admittance into “two rooms of Napoleon and the Chamber of Horrors.”[2] Despite Madame Tussaud naming the room the Chamber of Horrors, some people credited Punch, a weekly British magazine of humor and satire, for coining the term. Nevertheless, Punch did not use the term until 1846, although when they did use it, they made it wildly popular.

Madame Tussaud always hoped a more polite euphemism would prevail for the room called the Chamber of Horrors. In fact, she tried to get everyone to call it “The Chamber of Physiognomy,” but it never caught on with the public. The term didn’t seem fitting for a room that displayed death masks of the likes of Robespierre, Jacques Hébert (French journalist who opposed religion), Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville (prosecutor during the Revolution and Reign of Terror), Jean-Paul Marat (politician, journalist, and leader of the radical Montagnard faction), or Jean-Baptiste Carrier (French revolutionary who conducted the drownings at Nantes).

Colonel Despard, Etching taken at trial by Barlow. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After her move to England, the first death mask that Madame Tussaud modelled and put in her Chamber of Horrors was that of Colonel Edward Marcus Despard. He had plotted with other individuals to take over the Bank of England, seize the Tower of London, and assassinate George III. When the plot was discovered, Despard and six of co-conspirators were tried for high treason, found guilty, and executed. After Madame Tussaud obtained his likeness, she put the resulting wax effigy in her Chamber of Horrors, where it was displayed for many years.

Another popular display in the 1800s was that of William Hare and William Burke. They had committed a series of sixteen murders in Edinburgh in 1828. One historian wrote:

“Public interest in the Separate Room was enormously stimulated by the entry of these two criminals certainly equal in their iniquity to any that Curtius had modelled for his Caverne des Grands Voleurs.”[3]

The same year that Hare and Burke were displayed, Madame Tussaud added the first female murderess since her relocation to England. The woman’s name was Mrs. Stewart, and she and her husband (whose real name was Bradfoot) were convicted of poisoning and robbing a sea captain. Mr. Stewart also confessed to murdering seven other persons by “doctoring” them with poison. Madame Tussaud obtained the couple’s likenesses three hours after their executions and displayed them prominently in the Chamber of Horrors. However, she must have felt a slight twinge of compassion for Mrs. Stewart because in her catalog she reprinted an excerpt from the newspaper:

“The fate of the woman, though in a legal point of view she is equally criminal with her husband has excited comparatively a degree of compassion in the breasts of those acquainted with the circumstances in which she has all along been placed with regard to Stewart. Attached to him in an infatuated degree, she received every kind of abuse at his hands; and yet she continued to act as his coadjutor, and to serve him faithfully as if he had behaved to her with incessant kindness.”[4]

Besides the death masks, the Chamber of Horrors also contained a working model of a guillotine. In fact, in 1846, Madame Tussaud’s sons tracked down an actual blade used to decapitate the condemned in France in 1793 and 1794 and acquired it from the grandson of Charles-Henri Sanson, the royal executioner in France at the time. Madame Tussaud’s sons also obtained some full-size drawings of the guillotine.

Shah of Persia. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although many of Madame Tussaud’s visitors thought the guillotine the most interesting object in her Chamber of Horrors, not everyone did. One person who didn’t like it was the Shah of Persia who visited England in the summer of 1873. He did so after the Gladstone government invited him hoping that they could create better relations with the Persians.

While the Shah was in England, he visited Madame Tussaud’s Museum for about an hour. A newspaper from northeastern England commented on his visit:

“In the Chamber of Horrors he looked … and asked questions … A curious point in his behaviour was his horror of the guillotine. There stood the dreadful instrument from which the heads of many unfortunate wretches had tumbled, and for the Shah it was expected to be a source of unqualified delight. But his Majesty did not like the instrument, and on being told that it had actually been used many times, turned away in haste, and moved along the room. The conduct was all the more remarkable as the whole of the Shah’s suite crowded up to gape at the machine, leaving their master almost alone to look at the other objects of attraction.”[5]

Another newspaper also reported on what they termed the Shah’s “conscientious” visit. The paper noted that Madame Tussaud’s waxworks seemed to enthrall him unlike any other exhibition he had visited. However, they also noted there was a definitive lack of interest by the Shah in the guillotine:

“In the Chamber of Horrors he looked … at the guillotine from below, but did not ascend the platform on which it is placed. Several of his suite did, and evinced considerable anxiety to understand its mode of decapitation.[6]

A third newspaper also noted that the Shah’s lack of interest:

“[H]is Majesty went on to the guillotine, upon which, however, he bestowed but a passing glance. Not so his suite, for at least a dozen Persians scrambled up the staircase and inspected the hideous apparatus minutely.”[7]

Sketch of John Thurtell by William Mulready. Public domain.

By 1873, both of Madame Tussaud’s sons had died, and her grandson, Joseph Randall, took over the museum’s management. Randall then obtained one of England’s infamous instruments of torture, the gallows that had stood at Hertford Gaol for over fifty years. He purchased it just as it was ready to be demolished and added it to the Chamber of Horrors in 1878.

When Randall set up the gallows, he wanted the tableau to be realistic. Years earlier, in 1824, John Thurtell was found guilty of murdering a solicitor to whom he owed a large gambling debt, and Thurtell’s execution was the first using the Hertford Gaol gallows. “When … Randall set up the gallows in the exhibition he [therefore] modelled the figure of … Thurtell from contemporary portraits to go with it.”[8]

Such historical realism helped to popularize the Chamber of Horrors, and brought many visitors to Madame Tussaud’s throughout the nineteenth century. One visitor stated that his visit occurred on a rainy day in 1883 after he took the Underground Railway and paid the requisite shilling before passing through Madame Tussaud’s turnstyle into the museum. Although the entrance fee allowed him to see numerous wax figures, all visitors had to pay extra to be allowed access to the Chamber of Horrors:

“Of course I paid the extra sixpence which is charged for admission to the chamber of horrors — to have left it out would have been criminal in the eyes of any rightly-constituted sight-seer. When I entered I was immediately hustled aside by a fat old lady, who was in a state of great nervous excitement. She cried to a young girl, who was evidently fascinated by a fearful plaster cast — ‘Come away, Mariarann, I’ve seen quite enough of these ‘orrible things!’ It certainly was a repulsive place. All the other rooms had been gay with pictures and gilt mountings, but this room was hung with black, and the poor wretches whose effigies for their sins were exposed to view, were by no means cheerful company. Repellant as were the surroundings, however, the chamber of horrors seemed to be the most popular part of the whole exhibition, and it was crowded the whole time I was there.”[9]

Richard Doyle’s drawing of the Whig ministers being exhibited at the Chamber of Horrors. Courtesy of Yale Library.

Other Victorian people also mentioned Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors. For instance, Richard Doyle, the caricaturist for the satirical magazine Punch wrote about the room in a letter to Lady (Lucie) Duff Gordon on 27 March 1851. Besides commenting on the latest social and political news, Doyle also stated that he wanted to exhibit the Whig ministers at Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors and included the drawing shown and the following comment:

“I have just seen an advertisement of Madame ‘Tussaud & Sons’ announcing the ‘magnificent addition’ of Cardinal Wiseman. Oh! how I wish that she would put the Whole Whig Ministry into her ‘Chamber of Horror’s.’”[10]

Mr. Pips accompanying drawing of the Chamber of Horrors. Author’s collection.

Punch regularly mentioned Madame Tussaud’s and was one of museum’s harshest critics. One critique by the magazine included a drawing by Doyle that was titled “Manners and Customs of Ye Englyshe in 1849.” A Mr. Pips (actually the comic writer Percival Leigh) wrote an accompanying piece and stated that to please his wife, he had taken her to visit Madame Tussaud’s waxworks.

“[T]o the Chamber of Horrors, which my Wife did long to see most of all; cost, with the Napoleon Rooms, 1s. more; a Room like a Dungeon where the Head of ROBESPIERRE and other Scoundrels of the great French Revolution, in Wax, as though just cut off, horrid ghastly, and Plaster Casts of Fellows that have been hanged … Methinks it is of ill consequence that there should be a Murderers’ Corner, wherein a Villain may look to have his Figure put more certainly than a Poet can to a Statue in the Abbey.”[11]

Amelia Dyer. Madame Tussaud’s Archives.

Throughout the Victorian Era, the Chamber of Horrors continued to be updated with the latest criminals. One of the last murderers installed during in the late 1800s was Amelia Dyer. There are claims that Dyer killed between 200 and 400 children, which makes her one of the most prolific serial killers in history. In order to support herself, she became a baby farmer, which allowed her to charge a fee to adopt an unwanted child. Her fees ranged from a minimum of £10 to as much as £70 or £100. Dyer ensured she kept her profits by then neglecting and starving her “adopted” children until they died.

Eventually, however, Dyer decided starvation was too slow and resort to murder, strangling some of the children. Her murdering spree ended when police linked her to a “bagged” corpse found floating in the Thames. When she went to trial, she was convicted of her last murder, that of 4-month-old Doris Marmon. Dyer was hanged on 10 July 1896, and soon after, her wax figure was displayed in the Chamber of Horrors along with a letter written by her from prison where “Dyer said she had no hope of saving her life except through a plea of insanity.”[12] To learn more about Dyer, my friend Angela Buckley is an expert. Click here to learn more.

Although the Chamber of Horrors had always been considered unpleasant, in the late 1800s, the Chamber of Horrors acquired a scary reputation because of a rumor that stated Tussaud’s Museum was offering a substantial prize to any brave soul willing to spend a night there. At least that was claim made by a number of newspapers. Of course, Madame Tussaud’s denied any such offer had ever been made, but the rumor still continued to circulate. The rumor also resulted in a variety of people writing to the museum in an attempt to win the prize: Volunteers ranged from a 60-year-old woman and a Manitoba farmer to a number of people willing to stay the night for £250.

Despite the false rumor, the end of the 1890s was the period when the Chamber of Horrors was at its zenith in popularity. Madame Tussaud’s was also no longer owned by the Tussaud family. It had been purchased a few years earlier by a group of businessmen who wanted to make money with a commercial enterprise. Although the businessmen would introduce changes to the Chamber of Horrors, the draw that originally brought visitors to Curtius’ Caverne and later to Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors remained, and, for years afterwards, it continued to tempt and scare visitors. However, on 11 April 2016, due to many complaints from families with young children, it permanently closed and is now replaced by a Sherlock Holmes exhibit.

References:

  • [1] Madame Tussaud’s: Baker Street London (London: Madame Tussaud’s, 1979), p. 26.
  • [2] Illustrated London news, “The Shrine of Napoleon, or Golden Chamber,” July 29, 1843, p. 16.
  • [3] Pauline Chapman, Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors: Two Hundred Years of Crime (London: Constable and Company Limited, 1984), p. 46.
  • [4] Morning Advertiser, “Stewart, the Murderer, and His Wife,” August 21, 1829, p. 1.
  • [5] Shields Daily Gazette, “The Shah of Persia,” July 4, 1873, p. 3.
  • [6] The Star, “The Shah of Persia,” July 5, 1873, p. 2.
  • [7] Cork Constitution, “The Shah’s Visit to Madame Tussaud’s,” July 5, 1873, p. 5.
  • [8] P. Chapman, p. 69.
  • [9] Aberdeen Press and Journal, “A Visit to Madame Tussaud’s,” November 10, 1883, p. 5.
  • [10] Letter to Lucie, Lady Duff-Gordon; 17 Cambridge Terrace, [1851] Mar 27., Osborn d118, 10191029, p. 12.
  • [11] Punch or the London Charivari v. 16-19 (London: Punch Publications Limited, 1850), p. 112.
  • [12] P. Chapman, p. 114.

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