John Brown Wax Museum
John Brown was an American abolitionist who believed that armed rebellion was the best way to overturn slavery. He advocated for action over talk, and in 1856, Brown and his supporters killed five pro-slavery settlers in the Pottawatomie massacre in Kansas. He’s best known for leading a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), where seven people were killed and ten were injured when Brown tried to arm slaves with stolen weapons. He was captured and tried for treason against the Commonwealth, murder and inciting a slave rebellion—he was found guilty on all counts and hanged.
The raid at Harpers Ferry may have helped fuel the fire for the South's secession from the Union a year later and the Civil War that followed. Brown’s position in history is still controversial, with some people seeing him as a hero while others label him a terrorist. Another distinction that Brown has is that he’s one of only two historical figures to have a wax museum exclusively devoted to his story (Jesus is the other one).
The John Brown Wax Museum opened in Harpers Ferry in 1963. The museum is located in a building that actually existed in 1859 during Brown’s raid, and the block on which it stands became a protected National Historical Park shortly after the museum opened. Harpers Ferry is a cute little historical town, with some restaurants, shops and a train station.
I adore old wax museums, and I just had to see one entirely devoted to a somewhat obscure historical figure. We were driving from Gettysburg, and I was afraid that we weren’t going to make it to Harpers Ferry before the museum closed at 5pm. We pulled up the museum at 5:01 and I nearly pushed my mom out of the car in front of the museum so I could find parking.
After circling the tiny town for what seemed like forever, I finally found a spot and literally ran to the museum. When I burst in the front door, the woman at the front desk had already graciously decided to stay open long enough for us to see the ten or so dioramas. “You’re my last customers of the day,” she said—although from the looks of things we may have been the only customers of the day.
The 87 life-size figures are wonderful in their detail, and the entire museum feels like a time capsule from the ‘60s. There are handpainted signs, creaky steps, crude animatronics, cobwebs and a lot of dust, much like you’ll find at the Salem Wax Museum, the House of Frankenstein in Lake George or Niagra’s Wax Museum of History. It’s a little bit educational, a little bit creepy, and exactly the kind of thing worth speeding to get to while it’s still—somewhat improbably—open for business.
John Brown Wax Museum
168 High Street,
Harpers Ferry, WV 25425
Parking at the train station behind the museum