I traveled north from the Bay Area for Halloween and a week of exploration in Seattle. My hosts were awesome oddities-obsessed friends who gave me a crash course in Pacific Northwest weirdness.

First on the list was the historic Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, heralded as one part tourist trap, one part mind-blowing authentic collection of obscure rarities and natural curiosities. Plus, they sell desiccated pufferfish, perfect for conversion to fishy lanterns.

Fiji Mermaid at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop

The largest Fiji Mermaid I have ever seen

Like a lot of purveyors of oddities, their location did not immediately inspire respect, situated along Seattle’s well-traveled waterfront tourist run. But even from outside, one gets a sense of the wonders within, with window crammed full of memorabilia, specimen jars, and assorted dead critters. Inside, I was instructed to look to the walls and the ceiling for the best stuff - and there is some seriously good stuff up there. Almost exclusively not for sale, the curiosities have been accumulated over 100 years and four generations of the family that runs the shop.

Black Bart at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop

Black Bart

Lost in a sea of kitch at the front of the shop, the red one-armed slot machine bandit Black Bart was removed from the premises in 1984 on orders from the state Gambling Commission. Some fancy talking persuaded the law to give the shop back its harmless coin-dispensing bandit.

Medical Ed preserved human head

Medical Ed

Tucked in a corner in a small case the “Medical Ed” preserved human head is an antiquated medical educational aid which swings open on tiny brass hinges.

More after the jump>

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Accused in 1998 of being a fake by the great grandson of legendary con man Soapy Smith, the Curiosity Shop’s most famous mummy was in fact confirmed to be authentic and in excellent condition by forensic analysis in 2001 and 2005. He was about 35 years old when he died, pudgy, and riddled with lead from an old shotgun blast (those nubs on his head are the embedded shot). He was preserved with arsenic before somehow coming to rest in a desert in Arizona, where his body was discovered in 1895.

Sylvia mummy at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop


The mummy with the horror show expression is Sylvia, Sylvester’s companion. Sylvia comes from Central America, where she is thought to have been a young Spanish immigrant who succumbed to tuberculosis sometime in the early 20th century. Time has been less kind to her, and she now weighs in at a carry-on compliant 20 pounds.

Jivaro Shrunken Heads at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop

Jivaro Shrunken Heads

These examples of Jivaro shrunken heads from came from the Heye Foundation in New York shortly before the US placed bans on trafficking in human remains in 1940, before which there had been quite a booming business. To make a shrunken head, also known as tsantsa, tribesmen would remove the skull through a slit in the back of the head, then sew the eyes shut and seal the mouth with wooden pegs. The head was then boiled with tannens to shrink it to about one third the original size. Finally, the final shrinking and shaping was done with hot rocks and sand, taking about a week in full.

Many American institutions have repatriated collections of shrunken heads, so it is very rare to encounter them, maybe even more so in the same shop you can buy festive Seattle mugs and fridge magnets. Of course, it is also possible that the may be fakes, possibly even not human, as the Jivaro were known to sell shrunken monkey or sloth heads to unwary Northerners.

Native American Art

Wall of Native American arts

From the beginning the Curiosity Shop has been associated with a very fine collection of Native American art, and the totem poles available for sale in the shop are carved by the great grandchildren of the original Nuu-chah-nulth totem carvers who sold to the shop 100 years ago, now purchased by the great grandchildren of the original proprietor.

Jolly Jack

Creepy Sailor Guy

The “Jolly Jack” arcade toy dates to the 1930’s. When activated he rocks and laughs maniacally, perhaps challenging San Francisco’s own Laffin’ Sal for pure creepyness.

Of course, there’s so much more - like the enormous crab high on one wall, or the 8’ narwhal tusk tucked into a corner. They also have a very lovely collection of butterfly and insect specimens for sale, and the aforementioned pufferfish (complete with googly eyes).

For more history and visiting information, check out the Atlas listing: Ye Olde Curiosity Shop


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