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Fear and Loafing in St. Jo

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The arrow smashed into his jaw, knocking out five teeth. He kept riding. It was his second wound, delivered from his pursuers. He had jerked the first arrow out of his shoulder, and kept riding. Now Pony Bob’s mouth had an extra opening, and his shoulder was in pain. But he was young—a teenager—and his horse was fast. He rode for the Pony Express. Hey, this job wasn’t as romantic as I thought. Probably couldn’t find many people today who would work in those conditions.

I walked outside, and saluted an old friend, clinging to a galloping horse stuck atop a ten-foot pole. A giant neon arrow underscores the horse’s hooves, and aims at the museum stables. Appropriate, I thought. It’s the Pony Express Motel neon sign, lovingly transplanted to the museum’s parking lot. Years ago, in one of my first jobs—as a surveyor for the highway department—I stayed many nights bathed in the glow of that old sign.

I walked up the hill to the Patee House, where the Pony Express idea was hatched. Now it’s a museum but it was called the World Hotel and Epileptic Sanitarium when the widow of America’s most notorious outlaw was interviewed there, a block from the spot where Robert Ford’s bullet had lodged on the previous day. I shivered at the St. Jo police exhibit of actual murder weapons, including a drill with hair and skin still wrapped around it.

The museums were just warming me up for the big scare. Next door to Patee is a little house where Dingus died. Dingus was Jesse James’ nickname, but few people besides brother Frank called him that to his face. Among the displays, a small frame on the living room wall surrounds a bullet hole.That tiny patch of the original wallpaper may be the single most scary background since The Pit & the Pendulum.

Fact is, the scariest thing about St. Joseph is that the whole downtown is a museum, with more historic buildings than Rome, I do believe. Many remain abandoned. The good news is that they’re still standing. Some get a facelift.

I drove down Frederick Boulevard to the second cluster of museums.

On my first stop, an old familiar face surprised me. Oh, I see him every time I fish a dollar from my pocket. But this time, big as life, he gazed at me from Rembrandt Peale’s canvas. The father of our country sits in good company at the Albrecht-Kemper Museum, along with canvases by Cassat and Bierstadt. Stuart. Wyeth. In a front room, Thomas Hart Benton sketches peer from the walls. But in a side gallery is a sight scarier than Hieronymus Bosch’s Last Judgment. Glaring at me with a stare summoned from his vengeful God was John Brown, the violent abolitionist.

In the Black Archives Museum down the street, I was horrified by the graphic story of a lynching in downtown St. Joseph. To the town’s credit, they didn’t hold back, or whitewash the display. Newspaper accounts and photos detailed the gruesome event.

I was close to a nervous breakdown when I reached the final stop. The Glore Psychiatric Museum is America’s most straightforward presentation of the relics of past treatment of the mentally ill. Disturbing. Enlightening. The museum probes the dark recesses of imagination. The first thing I saw set the mood: 1,446 items swallowed by a patient: nails and screws, bolts and bobby pins and thimbles. Yes, the patient eventually died of his self-inflicted torment.

Down the hall is a human treadmill resembling a giant gerbil wheel made of wood, with no windows. Near the tranquilizer chair was a revolving swing, a box that swiveled up to 100 revolutions per minute, causing anxiety and vertigo, not to mention release of bodily fluids. One after another, the displays showed evidence of man’s inhumanity to man: a pillory, a contraption called Bedlam, and several coffin-like cages with names like the Utica crib and the lunatic box. There’s even a boob tube version of a message in a bottle: 525 notes scribbled secretly and stuffed into the back of a television set by a resident who believed his mind was trapped in a pair of boxcars outside.

The Glore sits in a real-life setting, the former St. Joseph Psychiatric Hospital. Its rooms are stark, cold and clinical, its doors reinforced, foreboding. The basement morgue peels away your defenses that this is just a representation. This stuff is real.

I asked Kathy Reno about the future of the Glore. She’s the public relations person for Saint Joseph Museums, Inc., the guts behind the Glore and three sister museums. “We’ve heard from several museum consultants,” she said. “Some suggest cosmetic facelifts, like, ‘Turn the entrance into a walk inside the brain.'” I sensed that she wasn’t sold on the facelift idea. Neither am I. Let these stark walls speak.

Then I asked her, “What’s the most unique response you’ve heard from visitors to the Glore?” She thought for a moment. “One lady said, ‘Why didn’t the doctors try these methods on themselves?'”

 

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