Waxworks were a fixture on Melbourne’s Bourke Street from 1857. First established as Madame Lee’s Waxworks and located opposite the Eastern Markets, Ellen Williams took over the business the following year. When she married phrenologist Philemon Sohier in 1859, it became Madame Sohier’s Waxwork Exhibition with another branch in Sydney. The Sohiers, however, met an untimely end – they were on board the City of Sydney when it was lost at sea in 1870. Maximilian Kreitmayer (an anatomical modeller born in Munich) had purchased the Melbourne business in 1869, and it ran as Kreitmayer’s Waxworks until its closure c.1911.
The main hall contained wax figures of the Royal Family, notable politicians and other celebrities of the time. At the end of the hall, vaudeville artists such as magicians, ventriloquists and glassblowers performed on stage. Amphitrite, an illusion of a girl swimming underwater (achieved with mirrors) first appeared in Melbourne at Kreitmeyer’s Waxworks and Museum on 30 November 1889.
Upstairs were live exhibitions of various touring freaks (who were often immortalised in wax after their departure). These included:
- General and Mrs Mite, the smallest couple in the world
- Jo Jo, the Russian dog-faced boy (Fedor Jeftichew)
- Abomah, the African Giantess
- Jun Gun, the aboriginal albino
- Madame Ghio, the Swiss bearded lady
- Fat Fred and Stout Sarah, the fattest children in the world
In the back room, the Chamber of Horrors contained wax effigies of notorious Australian murderers, outlaws, poisoners, and baby farmers and a collection titled “Instruments of Torture.” The highlight was a tableau of the Kelly Gang at Glen Rowan – apparently so popular that Ned Kelly’s boots were nailed to the floor to prevent theft. The Kelly family were said to be frequent visitors to the museum when they came to Melbourne, approaching the wax figures with the reverence of visiting a grave. Kreitmayer made the death mask of Ned Kelly and he supposedly had a cast of the bushranger’s head on display within days of Kelly’s execution in 1880.
In 1890, when Gladys Van Tassel made her balloon ascent in Melbourne, the main attractions at Kreitmayer’s Waxworks were Jun Gun and General and Mrs Mite.
Links to further information:
Madame Sohiers Catalogue (1865)
Kreitmayer’s Catalogue (1912)
The mystery behind Ned Kelly’s skull
Thrills and Chills in the Waxworks Argus Weekend Magazine, 10 June 1939
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