6 Nightmare Tourist Traps From History (Even Crazier Than Reality TV)
You ever feel like you're being watched? Probably, you're just being paranoid. But if there's a man outside your door yelling, "Step right up, step right up" and charges admission to strangers wanting to sniff around your bedroom, then you aren't being paranoid at all. In fact, it sounds like you're living much like the following unfortunate people did.
Girls Who Survived Without Eating
In Victorian times, if you wanted to have your faith strengthened by seeing something miraculous, you needed only to go make a trip to see one of several "fasting girls." This girls were said to live for years on end without eating anything, and they also sometimes boasted of other powers. Every one of these girls were frauds. You might notice we provide no source saying that they were all frauds, because the only source you need is the knowledge that people need food to survive, duh.
Frauds or not, the girls attracted visitors who gave gifts and donations, or sometimes, the entrance would be guarded by a more traditional huckster who charged admission. Watching someone not eat couldn't have made for great entertainment, but these were simpler times. And even today, you get people willing to, say, throw money at streamers who don't do much of anything, so if you gave those people today the chance to go into a private home and watch a teenager lie in bed, they'd throw dollar bills in your face.
Okay, that might not be fair of us to draw a connection there. We don't see any record officially saying people found these girls at all attractive. They weren't healthy anyway, from spending years on end wasting away in bed. And they did occasionally put on more of a show than just lying there. Take Mollie Flancher. She spent a total of 16 years in bed following an accident with a horse, and after an early period of spasms and trances, people said her mind had become free and gained psychic powers. A bandage over her eye, she'd be able to describe objects visitors carried with them, describe events outside the house, or even read letters in sealed envelopes. Here too, we are let down by the official record, with no one laying for us exactly how she did all this, so we've got to pick our own explanation. Maybe someone else fed info to her by tapping on her arm or something. Maybe she wasn't as blind as people said.
The real damage set in when the girls were put to the test, forcing them to fast for real. One fasting girl, Sarah Jacobs, had her career cut short when doctors took her in for observation, saying they'd only feed her if she asked for it. She starved to death, of course, which is what happens when you don't eat. Her parents were convicted of manslaughter, as they should have been, but those doctors should probably been charged with something or another too. If a patient says they think they can fly, you don't have to kick them out the window to test them. You can just ... assume they're wrong.
Geronimo, Imprisoned For Life To Bring In Tourist Dollars
We all know the story of Geronimo, right? He was that famous Apache leader who clashed with New Mexico settlers and then ... uh, okay, most of us are a little hazy on the details. So just to get everyone on the same page: The Apache Wars ran for some 40 years, and they ended with Geronimo's surrender in 1886. He surrendered because the US Army, through General Nelson A. Miles, cut him a deal. Geronimo would serve a little prison time, and then he and all his people would be allowed to settle back in the southwest peacefully. It sounded perfectly reasonable, so long as the US kept their end of it.
What actually happened was as they transported him to his prison in Texas, Geronimo attracted a whole lot of attention. People followed his train's progress to catch a glimpse of the dangerous Apache who'd finally been caught, so by the time they made it their destination in San Antonio, the captors realized, hey, they had a valuable commodity on their hands. They were bound next for St. Augustine, Florida, but some businessmen from Pensacola and suggested they move Geronimo there instead, so people could pay to see him.
This was a great idea. They transferred the guy to Fort Pickens in Pensacola, so that he could serve as a tourist attraction by day. Historians looking back have likened this to inviting visitors to tour Guantanamo, both in that the tourists thought they were getting a look at an evil killer and that the whole situation was still pretty awful for the inmate. Geronimo signed autographs for fans by day and then returned to the damp, crumbling fort complex, where he had to catch his own food (fish, else eat pork; his religion forbade both).
In time, he was released from Fort Pickens, which just meant that he would be imprisoned in a series of other forts for the rest of his life, while also having to perform at fairs and shows. If you happened to see him at one of these, it must have seemed similar to watching Sitting Bull do an act at Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, except that Geronimo was escorted to and from the venue by army guard. And that promise that the Apaches would get to settle back in the southwest? They did get to ... but not Geronimo, who was dead five years by that time. His last words were "I never should have surrendered."
People Queued Up To See Floyd Collins Rescued, Then Queued Up To See His Corpse
Below Kentucky is Mammoth Cave, which, as it name suggests, is really really big. It's got 400 miles of passageways, and that's just the part we've tracked so far. Not too far from that is another cave called Crystal Cave, and in 1925, its owner Floyd Collins wondered if maybe it linked up to Mammoth. If so, his cave would become more popular for sure. So he went on a solo expedition to the darker twists of Crystal Cave, discovered some new caverns that had never been mapped out before, and then, three weeks into his adventure, became completely and utterly stuck in one tight tiny passage.
He was 55 feet underground, in complete darkness, and surely within sniffing distance of the fearsome cave goblins. But rescuers were soon after him and tried their best to get him out. Collins' dreams of making Crystal Cave a major tourist attraction were completely realized, as people soon swept into the area to catch a look at the rescue effort. Ten thousand tourists came, setting up a sort of festival. There were food vendors, there was a juggler. These onlookers couldn't enter the cave itself, but the owner of the land around it -- one Bee Doyle -- charged admission to the campers and made bank.
Collins lasted a week, stuck in a position that his rescuers just couldn't reach. And then that was it, the caver died. People wanted the party to keep going though, and they were ever scared Doyle would raise prices even more. He didn't, but he did decline to fill up the shaft that killed Collins, so he could keep making money from tourists who wanted to see the spot. Collins' body was recovered and buried, eventually. But then a dentist bought the burial site, dug the body up, and displayed it back in the cave again for paying customers.
The body was stolen from the cave (or left on its own accord?) and was later found with one leg missing. Local legend claimed a rival cave owner had stolen it and thrown it in the river. But the exhibitors went and patched the body with wax and brought back to the cave, now displaying it in an openable glass coffin so everyone could get a good look at it. His family didn't regain custody of the body and rebury it till 1989, at which point Collins' curse finally withdrew and the Berlin Wall fell.
Sober Sue, The Woman Who Wouldn't Smile
At the beginning of the 20th century, Willie Hammerstein ran the Victoria Theatre in Times Square. It was the only vaudeville theater around, so it was a great place to check out all kinds of wacky acts. Maybe Mae West would show up, or maybe Buster Keaton. Maybe you'd get to see a talking dog. Or, let's say the town is obsessed with a scandal when one millionaire shoots another atop Madison Square Garden. You'd get to see the murderer's wife do a ballroom dance onstage with a prizefighter, while her husband across town broke out of the insane asylum.
Among Hammerstein's many attractions was Susan Kelly, a black woman he dubbed "Sober Sue" because she was able to resist laughing or smiling. Starting in 1907, he invited audience members to try to make her laugh in hopes of winning a prize of $100. With no one making any progress toward winning, and Sober Sue's fame continuously growing, he upped the prize to $1,000, which we're pretty sure was enough money in those days to buy Delaware.
Many famous comedians tried their luck at making Sober Sue laugh, coming to the Theater and doing their act. The larger audience would laugh, but Sue wouldn't, and the comic would leave empty-handed. Willie had a lot of fun off Sue's reputation, and when she was absent one day, off to attend a funeral, he joked that she had probably gone to have a good laugh.
It was all harmless fun, but seems slightly less fun when you hear Sue's secret: she suffered from facial paralysis. Some say it was Mobius syndrome, which even includes the inability to move one's eyes and comes with a lot of side effects. Though it's possible that the people most exploited in all this weren't Sue but the comedians, who were conned into performing for free. The Victoria Theater was like a less exploitative TikTok.
Jerome, The Legless Amnesiac
The olden days offered plenty of cases of injured people being paraded as freaks, but the case of Jerome of Sandy Cove is weirder. In 1863, an eight-year-old found the man washed up on a beach in Nova Scotia. His legs had been expertly amputated and stitched off, and he could speak only three words -- "Jerome," "Columbo," and "fretto," which was the Italian word for "frozen." So they called him Jerome, after the sound he made. Kind of like Hodor, except he had no legs, so really, he needed a Hodor of his own.
The government paid him a stipend and his host family charged admission to many tourists who wanted to look at him. It didn't seem like he enjoyed the attention at all, though he didn't have a good way of expressing himself. He'd occasionally respond to visitors by screaming violently and trying to beat them away, though, which should have been a good indication to anyone that he wasn't a willing participant in all this.
No one ever discovered his origin, even though he lived for almost another 50 years. That's kind of crazy. Sure, this wasn't exactly the social media era, but getting both legs amputated makes you pretty distinctive, and would have meant that he had to have been in someone's care before he appeared on Sandy Cove, and yet no one ever found out who Jerome really was. He finally died on April 15, 1912. That same day, the Titanic sank. Coincidence?
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People Could Pay To Tour A Swedish Prison, To Get A Look At That Cross-Dressing Robin Hood
Lars Moslin was famous in Sweden for disguising himself as a woman during his robberies, so he could seduce his victims. In his own memoirs, however, he claimed to prefer men's clothes during his heists but lived as a man and a woman alternately in his private time, so it sounds like there was something more going on there. Moslin stole from the rich and gave to the poor, and was caught a couple times and escaped a couple times, then finally was charged with stealing church silver, an especially serious crime. Unfortunately, no priest suddenly appeared to lie on his behalf and claim he'd given the silver as a gift, so Moslin was sentenced to life to a prison called Carlsten Fortress.
Carlsten was opened to tourists who could come look as Moslin (or "Lasse Maja," to use the name people soon switched to, Maja being a female name). The town advertised the prisoner as a storyteller, but tourists were also super amused to see this thief wearing a dress. Plus, Lasse Maja was apparently a really good cook, and that's how you gain favor in any prison.
Against every known pattern, this story has a happy ending. One of the visitors to the prison was Carl XIV, the crown prince of Sweden, and he was so entertained by Lasse Maja that he issued a pardon. And so Lasse Maja lived out the remainder of their life free, publishing a set of memoirs (written in prison) and touring Sweden talking to people. Some people do enjoy becoming tourist attractions, apparently. They're called celebrities, and they're pretty weird.