J is for Jarley.

Mrs Jarley is the touring waxworks proprietor in The Old Curiosity Shop. Her chamber of horrors include ‘the woman who poisoned fourteen families with pickled walnuts’ and ‘Jasper Packlemerton of atrocious memory, who courted and married fourteen wives and destroyed them all by tickling the soles of their feet.’

Dickens probably had Madame Tussaud in mind. She toured the country for thirty years, exhibiting in every principal city and town. There was a waxworks exhibition in Fleet Street as early as 1711. It was still open in the nineteenth century; David Copperfield takes Peggotty there on her trip to London.

Madam Tussaud’s was where the visitor could come face to face with any number of the most famous murderers in history; James Rush was represented, of course. Madame Tussaud’s catalogue of horrors announced with a good deal of relish that:

The annals of crime must place the name of Rush at the lowest depth of infamy … having murdered his Wife, his Mother, his Father-in-law, and lastly, Mr Jermy and his Son, and dangerously wounded Mrs Jermy and her maid; of having seduced many young women – and committed forgeries of the blackest dye. He was executed at Norwich, amidst the deepest execrations of the assembled multitude.

In Dickens’s magazine All the Year Round, there is an article about the waxworks. The murder room is called the Chamber of Horrors:

To enter the Chamber of Horrors rather late in the afternoon, before the gas is lighted, requires courage, to penetrate through a dark passage under the guillotine scaffold, to the mouth of a dimly-lighted cell, through whose bars a figure in a black serge dress is faintly visible, requires courage … there is horror in the inflated smiling heads, cast after death by hanging …

The writer of the article can stand no more. A final sight sends him rushing out of Madam Tussaud’s. What had he seen? Well, this:

What shall be said of a young man who could stand at the door of the chamber of horrors eating a pork pie … his eye was on the model of Marat, assassinated in a bath…

Odd place, the murder room, to eat your lunch.

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