Morbid Curiosities: Collecting the Macabre with Paul Gambino
From shrunken heads to Ouija boards, medical oddities and murderabilia: when it comes to the world of collecting, there are a few dark corners where most people fear to tread.
But not everyone.
In his new book 'Morbid Curiosities', American author and collector Paul Gambino has brought together 18 of the world's most macabre collections, in order to shed light on why some find these sinister artifacts so fascinating.
To celebrate the release of the book this week, JustCollecting spoke to Gambino about his own morbid museum, what draws people to the darker side of collecting, and why he can't stop thinking about The Jar of Insanity...
Why did you decide to write Morbid Curiosities?
The impetus to write Morbid Curiosities stems from my personal attachment to the topic. I have been a collector of the macabre for the last 25 years, with a concentration on Victorian era post mortem photos.
Throughout the years I have been privy to some amazing personal collections, and when these collectors agreed to have their remarkable private collections documented and photographed it just seemed natural to present it as a book.
How did the people you spoke to feel about revealing their collections?
Most of the collectors keep a very low profile for a variety of reasons, such as the stigma attached to collecting these types of pieces, legal issues, etc.
However, most people were very anxious to have their collection featured. There were a few who were reluctant, but acquiesced based on our friendship or my reputation, and then there were others who decided against being featured after months of deliberation.
Vintage planchettes, used by spirit mediums during seances to contact the dead (C) Brandon Hodge
In a book packed with strange and remarkable items, are there any that still stick in your mind (or haunt your dreams)?
There are two pieces in the book that fit that description, and neither of them are visually over-the-top.
The first is The Jar of Insanity. Just the thought of someone being so mentally disturbed/tortured that they could not break out of this obsessive compulsive loop that would drive them to spend countless hours folding and tearing thousands of tiny pieces of paper – each EXACTLY the same — and then filling a jar with the torn paper is frightening. It’s a physical manifestation of insanity and very upsetting.
The second piece that I still think about at least once a week is the 'Quaint Toy with a Somber Past'. This small, relatively innocuous wooden toy takes on such a sad turn when you see the note that was tied to its base that reads, “Norman, Your mother played with this two hours before death.” I find that terribly sad and unsettling.
What inspired you to become a collector yourself?
I grew up basically being raised by my grandmother in a very old house that was crammed with antique furniture and countless cabinets filled with 'curiosities'. Growing up in that environment shaped my fascination with antiques.
An early 20th century 'Quack Shock' helmet, used to give voluntary electro-shock treatments in an Italian spa (C) Steve Erenberg
Everything from civil war era money to signed pictures of Frank Sinatra to match books from NYC nightclubs from the 1930 and 40s. In the yard were old wagon wheels, two discarded outhouses, art deco lawn furniture and in the garage a 1953 Plymouth that she drove every day. This was in a relatively urban suburb of NYC, so this was not your everyday house with a yard.
My early exposure to the fragility of life spawned my fascination with death, and my desire to surround myself with oddities became the recipe for me becoming a collector of the uncommon and bizarre.
If you gave us a tour of your own collection, what would we find?
You would find everything from Victorian era pieces through to 1960s post mortem photographs, life size statues of Catholic saints, grave markers, last rights kits, early 1900s large format communion photographs, vintage taxidermy and some crime ephemera.
If money (and time and space) were no object, what's the one item you'd add to your own collection?
Actually it’s not an item I would like to add, but rather scores of photographs I would like to have back. At one point around 10 years ago, my entire collection of post mortem images were thrown into the garbage. It pains me till this day to even think about it.
A homemade prison knife known as a 'shank', used to murder an inmate in Alabama (C) Jessika M
When it comes to collecting the macabre, where would you draw the line? Are there any pieces you've come across that made you think "Whoa, too dark for me!"?
The only reason I would refuse a piece into my collection, other than the piece being illegal to own, would be if I could not garner any history behind the piece and therefore its presentation would just be exploitation.
I once waited months to be granted access to an amazing collection of crime photographs, and then turned down the purchase for that very reason.
“Here is a photo of a horrible murder, but I know nothing of the details.” To me that is immoral. All you are doing there is taking someone’s suffering and presenting it as entertainment.
Although the subjects in your book all collect different things, did you find any common traits between people who seek out the "uncommon and bizarre"?
Other than the common characteristics found in most collectors, the more unique traits of these collectors would be a sharpened sense of their own mortality. Many surround themselves with these pieces as reminders of the fragility of life.
Some feel surrounding themselves with death subconsciously keeps it at bay or that they can control it, while others are actually very comfortable with the inevitability of dying and on one level embrace that part of their future.
Another common trait would be a desire to give 'life' and protection to these pieces. All the collectors treat the pieces in their collection with the utmost respect. They realize the sanctity of the items and feel a responsibility to preserve and at times display the piece with reverence.
19th century wax mannequin heads, rooted with human hair and featuring porcelain teeth and glass eyeballs (C) Evan Michelson
What advice would you give to people looking to start their own collection of curiosities?
When you begin you will make mistakes, like buying pieces that are fakes or just not what you thought they were. Also, until you find your niche within the genre you'll be buying pieces that eventually won't feel like they fit your collection.
My suggestion would be to buy pieces that are relatively on the low end of the price scale, until you have paid your dues and found your focus.
In an increasingly digital age, do you think collecting historic objects is becoming more important?
I would like to think so. However, I believe the hardcore digital generations have yet to realize what they are missing by only owning virtual pieces of history.
Hopefully they will eventually come around, but ask many collectors and they will probably say, "Let them stay on the web, less competition for me in acquiring the real pieces."
'Morbid Curiosities' by Paul Gambino is released this week on October 20, by Laurence King Publishing.
(Top Image: (C) Matthew Ryan Cohn)