The Eden Musée

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The story of Ajeeb is so closely tied to the Eden Musée that I want to briefly discuss this somewhat peripheral (to chess) yet highly interesting subject.

The Eden Musée circa 1900


The Eden Musée, which was located in Manhattan on Twenty-third street, between 5th and 6th Avenues, opened in 1884 by Richard G. Hollaman and company.  Patterned after the wax museums of Europe, such as Madame Tussaud’s in London and the Musée Grévin in Paris, the establishment placed itself on a somewhat higher plane by offering not just wax figure collections, but many other things.

 Every month the Eden Musée published a program reflecting any changes in their offerings. The following Introduction to the September 1899 program reflects the management's views:


     THE founders of the EDEN MUSÉE had a higher object in view than that alone of establishing a profitable commercial enterprise. It was their intention to open a Temple of Art without a rival in this country, affording to all an opportunity for instruction, amusement and recreation, without risk of coming into contact with anything or anybody that was vulgar or offensive. For children and young people, particularly, the Eden Musée will prove a constant source of enjoyment and instruction. A child will learn more from a plastic representation of events and persons than a book can teach. Illustrated newspapers, giving pictorial views of incidents and scenes of today, have already a great advantage over the ordinary journals which give us only the dead letterpress; and from the cold, colorless engravings of an illustrated newspaper to the life-like plastic groups of the Eden Musee is an immense step toward a realistic representation of nature and life.
     The Eden Musee is thoroughly cosmopolitan; it is not intended for the instruction and enjoyment of Americans alone; it is for the citizen of the world. It represents scenes from the icy solitudes of the Pole to the burning sun of Africa, and distant China and Japan, as well as distinguished persons, rulers, artists and scientists, from every country on the globe.
     The Directors have spared no trouble or expense to render the Musee as attractive and perfect, from an artistic point of view, as'it could possibly be made. They have erected in the very heart of New York, in one of the most frequented streets of the city— Twenty-third street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues—a handsome building in the picturesque style of modern French Renaissance, which is an ornament to the street— indeed to the whole city. Besides the different halls and chambers containing the principal groups and figures, there is the Winter Garden, richly decorated with tropical plants, handsome mirrors and pleasing groups, affording a delightful opportunity for rest and recreation after a tour through the Musee, and at the same time giving an opportunity to listen to the excellent concerts given by the Eden Musée Orchestra each afternoon and evening. These concerts are of so high a character that they make the Musee practically the musical center of New York.
     Many of the heads and figures of the persons exhibited have been modeled after nature, and the grouping and dressing of the figures have been done by our own artists and costumers. The following pages of this catalogue contain a detailed description of every group and figure in the collection, accompanied by historical and general notes.

 Here is a look at some of the pictures in  the Eden Musée's very well presented catalogue. The huge monthly catalogue lists a description of each of the innumerable exhibits and attractions. Below the pictures is the catalogues description of Ajeeb:

Catalogue frontispiece

Admission gate

Central Hall - World in Wax sculputure

An ad for Wax Figure rentals

A nice depiction of a wax grouping called Chicago Anarchists

A sketch of the wax grouping named Appomatox Courthouse



A sketch of the wax grouping named Spanish Inquisition


A sketch of the wax grouping named Rulers of the World



A sketch of the wax grouping named Queen Isabella Receiving Columbus



The catalogue, of course, listed Ajeeb, who occupied the second floor.


Visitors while on the gallery should not fail to see AJEEB, the mysterious chess and checker playing automaton. It represents a Moorish figure seated on a cushion, beneath which is a perfectly open table; in front is a small cabinet with doors, which are all open, as well as the back and chest of the figure. Any stranger is at liberty to play a game with the automaton; the movements of the figure are free and easy, and it shifts the pieces with as much accuracy as its living opponents and with much greater success, generally coming off the conqueror. In giving check to the king the automaton makes a sign by raising his head twice, and for checkmate three times.


Citing the advent of movie theaters as the main reason (although the Eden Musée played a big part in the development of the cinema), the Eden Musée went belly-up in June of 1915.  The December 14, 1915 edition of the NY Times details the subsequent auction:

After the Eden Musée went bankrupt last June, Peter B. Olney, the receiver, allowed its protectors six months of grace.  But at the end of six months its finances were in a worse state than before, so it was sold to Karp Brothers. If S. W. Gumpertz is the chivalrous gentleman that he seems to be, he will oblige a lady washing her chin and giving her a new powder puff.  The lady is the heroine of that venerable mechanical group called, "Too Late for the Opera,"  acquired yesterday by Mr. Gumpertz. . ."


Gumpertz bought all the House of Horror, the Electrocution of the Four Gunmen ($40), The Bomb-thrower ($5), The Assasination of McKinley, Suffragate Smashinga Mirror ($21), The Surrender of R.E. Lee at Appomatox Courthouse, shown above, went for $105.  Although Mr. Karp, the auctioneer, suggested a $1000, the wax depiction of the famous statue Laocoon, went for $5. A group called Makers of History, including Cleopatra, Napoleon, Caesar, Roosevelt and numerous others sold for $240. In short, many people got a bargain, but Mr. Gumpertz, who would soon open a Eden Musée on Surf Avenue on Coney Island, gained the most.

Sam Gumpertz ignored the educational aspect of the original Eden Musée and featured only the most grizzly and sensational wax groups.  Supposedly Ajeeb followed Gumpertz to the new Eden Musée, but shortly after, Mrs. Elmore, the owner of Ajeeb, had a falling out with Gumpertz and moved the automaton to a rival waxworks named World of Wax.

The End . . .

Time Magazine
Monday, Mar. 19, 1928
Thirty years ago, rural visitors to Manhattan were careful to see the Eden Musée which, like Madame Tussaud's* in London and the Grévin in Paris, was a gallery of wax statues. The collection was at that time situated on 23rd Street; of late years, its patronage lessened but not destroyed, the Eden Musée has been located on Coney Island.
Last week a fire started in the Eden Musée. It began burning near Charlie Chaplin's effigy; the sad and funny little man subsided mournfully into smoking grease. The flames leaped from figure to figure, stroking their oily faces with a hot and magic hand. Before long, all the ugly famous criminals, the sly and silent actresses, the solemn, musty presidents and the fake policemen stationed to fool visitors—all these people with their stiff faces and their blind, secretive eyes, sharing also with their no less sly, no less secretive models the total inability to escape destruction, became puddles or streams of burning wax. Lindbergh looked brave no longer, a murderer lowered the frail knife which he had held so long in a poised and useless threat. All this frail company of famous people dwindled, slipped, leaned and perished into a huge and hungry flame. The owner of the Eden Musée, one Gumpertz, was away in the South. Firemen came, the manager's 16-year old daughter, Lillian Seeger, pleaded with them and stared and cried. The fire went on burning; nobody could stop it.
               *Madame Tussaud's wax works partially burned up in March 1925.