Saturday, March 19, 2011
Figures in Wax
One of the key attractions to the "convict ship" Success from her very first days of exhibition was the prominent use of wax figures to represent prisoners who had done time on board the ship, as well as others who were a part of the ship's history in some way. As I noted in an earlier blog, wax representations of members of the Kelly Gang of bushrangers, shown in the photo below, were included because of the immense popularity of Ned Kelly in Australia at the end of the 19th century, not because of any connection with the ship Success.
At the time that the Success first went on exhibition at Port Melbourne in early 1890, the art of wax modeling was immensely popular. And the most popular subject for the wax artisan? Criminals! Then, as now, the public had a morbid fascination with the criminals of the day, especially bushrangers, who were considered dashing, larger-than-life figures. So it was hardly surprising when someone from a local waxworks in Melbourne approached the new Success management with an offer to sell them a set of these figures. Judging from these images, the quality of the work was exceptionally high. Police photographs of these criminal subjects allowed the wax artist to render an exceptionally lifelike product.
Alexander Phillips, who bought the ship at auction from the Victorian government, purchased wax figures for a number of well-known Success convicts, as well as the Kelly Gang. Individual figures were placed in cells on the 'tween and lower decks. Groups of figures, such as that of the Kelly Gang and a scene depicting the murder of John Price, were placed in larger spaces located at the aft end of the ship on both decks. Over the years the figures changed, added, or had to be redone. In 1892 when the ship was on show in Sydney, there was a faction of citizenry opposed to the exhibit. One night a group of individuals skulked aboard and smashed most of the wax figures, causing considerable damage. Then, a few weeks later, the ship sank. (Whether the sinking was accidental or deliberate was never fully resolved.) After the ship was raised six months later, a new company was formed from the ashes of the old and one of the things that was done was to replace all of the original wax figures. They continued to be popular during the ship's half century of exhibition. It is worth noting that many of the early wax figures featured on the ship were immortalized by the renowned photographer, John Watt Beattie, who came aboard and was allowed access to these exhibits when the ship was on exhibition at Hobart, Tasmania, in 1894. Among others, he is responsible for the images on the right and immediately below.
The wax figures were always popular, in part because they served a valuable purpose. Instead of staring at an empty cell, the visitor got to see what looked like an actual person, dressed in prison garb. Being able to visualize the convicts in this way surely made for a more rewarding and meaningful experience. By the way, to support the weight of these full-size figures they were fitted with special iron 'feet,' like the one shown below.
There are many stories that have been told about the life-like nature of these figures. Some years ago the head from one of the wax figures sat at the end of the bar at the famous Roundhouse Bar at Put-in-Bay village on South Bass Island in Lake Erie. Periodically, one of the bartenders would place a cigarette between the wax lips, light it, and wait for the stunned reactions of the bar's patrons that were sure to follow. A lecturer on the ship told of how he would stand deathly still among the wax figures as a tour group came through, suddenly coming to life and scaring the bejesus out of group members.
While some of the wax figures were destroyed in the 1946 fire, there is no doubt that many of them ended up in private hands in the years prior when the ship was left unprotected and vulnerable to looting. Fortunately, though, a few of these fine pieces are available for public viewing. You can see several fine pieces on display at the Sandusky Maritime Museum in Sandusky, Ohio. They have a fine collection of these and other pieces, on permanent loan from the Rutherford B. Hayes Library in Fremont, Ohio. I will close this blog with a pic of one of the wax heads and other Success artifacts on display in Sandusky. It's well worth a visit.