Down on Seattle’s waterfront, amid tacky t-shirt shops, fish-n-chip joints, and caramel corn sellers is one the Northwest’s most august institutions: Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. Yes, it’s primarily a tourist souvenir trap selling Space Needle shot glasses and phony totem poles, but it’s also one of the world’s greatest and oldest curiosity cabinets–the kind of free museum where you’ll find fake sea monsters, the Lord’s Prayer written on a grain of rice, a taxidermy two-headed calf, a ship built from matchsticks, Peruvian shrunken heads, and a narwhal tusk, among other wonders.
The store was opened in 1899 by J.E. “Daddy” Standley, an inveterate collector and showman. Seattle was at the height of the boom brought on by Klondike Gold Rush, and its residents and visitors had an insatiable appetite for curios and exotic souvenirs. Standley named his packed store after “The Olde Curiosity Shop,” by Charles Dickens (and proudly displayed the motto “Beats the Dickens!”). By the time of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition ten years later, Standley’s shop had a reputation as one of the premier vendors for Native American crafts–some authentic, some not, and a few acquired by dubious means. But the collection was substantial, and he supplemented it with all manner of oddities, including several mummified corpses, most famous of which is “Sylvester,” who’s still on display today.
Thought to be a gunfighter who died in Arizona, a scientific study of Sylvester in 2005 suggested that whoever embalmed the corpse injected it with an arsenic-based fluid. Standley somehow acquired the mummy from “Soapy” Smith, a notorious Klondike con artist. They say you can still see the bullet hole in the mummy’s side.
There’s certainly a lot of fiction to go with any of the facts you find at Ye Olde Curiosity, even today. Though Standley died in 1940, his descendants still own the shop, and in March 2016 they relocated to new digs in Pier 55, next door to Ivar’s. It’s a bright space that shows off the bizarre collection handsomely. Where else can you peruse preserved pufferfish, buy Trump Small Hands Soap, study a surviving Japanese kamikaze flag or swiveling blunderbuss, or purchase a wooden Tlingit mask along with a three-headed duckling?
I remember coming here as a kid, buying my trinkets and candy sticks, and plugging a quarter into the fortune-telling machine. I was pretty sure the mummy was fake, but now turns out I was wrong. Or was I? It’s hard to know what’s real in Joe Standley’s remarkable free museum, a piece of old Seattle that has somehow survived the city’s latest boom.