History Of Madame Tussaud's
( Originally Published 1920 )
"The Chamber of Horrors Rumour"—No reward has been, or will be, offered—The constable's escapade—A nocturnal experience—Dumas's comedy of the Chamber—Yeomen of the Halter.
WE have speculated much upon the origin of what has come to be called "The Chamber of Horrors Rumour," relating to a popular delusion that Madame Tussaud's will pay a sum of money to any person who spends a night alone with the criminals assembled therein.
It need hardly be pointed out that no such ridiculous challenge was ever issued to the public, although the rumour has run for nearly twenty years, in spite of repeated contradictions.
I am not even hopeful that what I am writing now will produce the desired result of disabusing adventurous minds of this impression; in fact, denials on our part appear rather to have tended to give wider currency to the rumour. Thousands of letters have been received from volunteers of both sexes eager and anxious to undertake the ordeal for rewards which vary, in their imaginations, from £5 to £5,000.
Among the aspirants have been soldiers, sailors, expolicemen, and even domestic servants, all of whom insisted that their nerves were equal to the task. Only the other day I received a letter from a Scotsman who intimated his willingness to forgo any pecuniary reward if only we would furnish him with a bottle of whisky and some sandwiches with which to regale him-self as he sat at the feet of Burke and Hare.
The conclusion has somehow taken possession of our minds that this fallacious rumour emanated, innocently enough, from a story told long ago by one "Dagonet" of a man who was said to have been accidently locked all night in the Chamber. Originally, I imagine, people must have offered voluntarily to spend a night there for a consideration, and then, as the subject came to be talked about, it very easily grew into the form of a challenge said to have been made by us, which, of course, was never made and never will be made.
Considerable fillip was given to the rumour by the Chamber of Horrors scene in The Whip at Drury Lane Theatre in 1909.
From some source or another handbills in the following form were plentifully distributed:
will be given to any person, male or female, who will pass the night alone in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud's Exhibition.' The only condition made is that the daring one shall not smoke or drink or read during the twelve hours he passes with the wax figures of the world's noted criminals.
It was also stated on the handbill that the above was a copy of a placard said to have been issued many years ago, but in spite of the large reward, no one came forward to try the experiment, and that now, after many years, "Tom Lambert, the trainer of The Whip, undergoes this horrible experience in the Drury Lane drama."
So far so good, for dramatic purposes—and that is all.
Apparently it was something of this sort that the bard had in mind who wrote the following stanza:
I dreamt that I slept at Madame Tussaud's
Until the recent escapade of a venturesome young lady, the only instance I can recall of any person spending the night alone in the Chamber of Horrors falls accidentally to the credit of a policeman on duty at the Exhibition when the opening of the present building was celebrated in July, 1884. A reception was then held which lasted until after midnight, and naturally it became necessary that the place should be guarded till the return of the staff in the morning.
The policeman in question was put in charge of the criminals in the Chamber of Horrors, with liberty to relieve the monotony of his eerie vigil by strolling through the other parts of the building, which included access to the room in which the refreshments had been served. Wines and spirits and other good things were left nominally under his care—whereby hangs a tale.
When the time came to relieve the policeman in the morning, he could not be found, and after a long search an Exhibition attendant heard the sound of moaning proceeding from one of the docks in the Chamber of Horrors. Here lay asleep the missing police-officer, in a condition that pointed to the probability of his having had recourse to the wines of the feast, presumably as a means of fortifying his courage.
The incident caused some little concern, but the officer's position was so well understood and the extenuating circumstances were so obvious that his misadventure came to be jocularly treated as an excusable lapse. He had not only spent the night in the dread abode of criminals, but had actually slept there—a much more surprising performance.
Yet another reminiscence of the Chamber of Horrors, just a little creepy.
Sauntering one night through its gloomy passages after the last visitor had departed and the watchmen, having passed me on their rounds, had lowered the lights to a feeble glimmer, my attention was drawn in some unaccountable way towards one of the models.
"I could swear that figure moved," I said to myself. "But no, the notion is too ridiculous."
I looked at it again, carefully this time. I was not mistaken. The figure did move, and, what was more, it moved distinctly towards me. It appeared to bend slowly forward, as though in preparation for a sudden bound, and I thought it looked at me with a fixed and malignant stare.
Just as I was expecting it to raise its arms and seize me by the throat, it stopped dead, and remained at a grotesque and ludicrous angle, apparently looking for something on the floor.
What was the explanation of this thrilling experience'?
The vibration caused by a heavy goods train on the Metropolitan Railway, which runs under the Exhibition premises, had shaken the figure off its balance, and the iron which fastened it to the floor permitted it to move and lean forward in the uncanny manner I have described.
The following comedy of the Chamber of Horrors from which the chief actor derived a minimum of amusement, if any, comes into my mind as having been described by the elder Dumas, and is calculated to relieve the gloom that is naturally associated with the place:
"A young Parisian, visiting the Exhibition in Lon-don, found himself temporarily alone in the famous Chamber, and was seized with the ambition of being able to say, on his return to his favourite Paris café, that his neck had been held in the same lunette which had once encircled those of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
"The idea was no sooner conceived than carried out, and for quite five minutes the rash young man enjoyed his novel position under the knife of the very same guillotine which had once worked such havoc among the aristocrats in the gay city.
"When, however, he was about to touch the spring that would release him, a thought struck him which threw him into a cold sweat.
"Supposing he were to touch the wrong spring, might not the knife come down, with the result not only of beheading him, but of making the world believe a most sensational suicide had been committed'?
"He shouted for help, and at length an attendant, followed by a crowd of visitors, appeared.
" `What is the matter?' they asked in English; but the official was equal to the occasion, and turned it to good account.
" `À l'aide! Au secours!' yelled the Parisian, who could only speak French.
" `A little patience,' answered the other.
" `What does he say?' was the general query.
" `Oh, it's a part. of his performance, ladies and gentleman. You see, Madame Tussaud is not satisfied with merely exhibiting the guillotine. She wishes to show you how it is actually worked.'
"This statement was greeted with general applause by everybody except the victim, who continued en-treating to be released, whilst the impromptu lecturer calmly explained to the audience the practical working of the death-dealing machine.
" `Bravo ! How well he acts!' was the verdict, as the prisoner appealed frantically in a language which none else but the attendant understood.
"Finally, on being at last released, he fainted. They brought him round with smelling-salts and cold water, and the first thing he did was to feel if his head was still safe. Satisfied on this point, he fled, without stopping to find his hat, and lost not an instant in starting at once for Paris."
I come now, by a sudden transition, to write of three notable shrieval servants whose occupation, however indispensable, was unsavoury.
Calcraft, the first to be styled the "Yeoman of the Halter," I had not the "pleasure" of knowing.
We have the original signboard he used to exhibit outside his house. It is a framed piece of wood, about three feet by two feet, and it bears in black letters the following notice :
Boot and Shoe Maker. Executioner to Her Majesty.
His successor, Marwood, sat on several occasions for his model.
The executioner would sometimes visit the studios when his spirits were low, and a pipe and a glass of gin and water—his favourite beverage—were always at his service.
Then he would go down to the Chamber of Horrors to see some of his old acquaintances around whose necks he had so delicately adjusted the fatal noose. He would stop before each one with a grim look, while his lips moved tremulously.
"Put me there," he once said after he had given a sitting.
It was like a man choosing the site of his grave. His companion on these visits was a grizzled terrier. One day he came alone.
"Your dog, Mr. Marwood—where is it ?" he was asked.
The old man was sad.
"My poor old dog is dying—my dog that knew the business like a Christian and the inside of every prison in England; that has played with my ropes; that has caught rats in my business bags."
"Dying by inches," was the unfeeling rejoinder of a bystander, followed by the cruel suggestion, "Why don't you hang him ?"
Marwood gave him a reproachful glance.
"No, no. Hang a man, but my dear old dog—never!"
Poor Marwood had a good heart, and the story of the dog was so affecting that the interview abruptly terminated.
Berry, the executioner, was paid for a sitting, and seemed by no means averse from having his figure placed in the Chamber of Horrors, where it may now be seen. He rather appeared to be proud of his official calling.