First you must picture a gaily painted wagon pulling up in town square or the red-and-white striped tents of the traveling circus. Meanwhile, all over town – fishwives, the baker and the candlestick maker – drop mundane tasks to heed the summons of the guy with a handlebar mustache and sidekick monkey stepping forward to crank on a slightly out-of-tune grinder organ as accompaniment for the booming voice to announce: Ladies and gentlemen – step right up to see the most unbelievable, the most amazing …
People now surf the web to view those things, but in a charming and seemingly typical 1890s Victorian two story at 46 Charlotte Street, St. Augustine, local Attorney Wolfgang Von Mertz and his wife Ali live amongst a collection of the strange that would warm the heart of those most prolific purveyors of weird like Jim Rose, P.T. Barnum or even Robert Ripley himself.
“I give credit to those guys for allowing people like me to create a Mystery Museum. Ripley did things that no other person in his era could and opened up the globe’s treasures to the everyday lay person ,” said Von Mertz, whose Nordic blue eyes start to dance at the mention of the once not-to-be-missed travelling shows that drew huge crowds to view things like contortionists and bearded ladies.
A native of North Dakota and youngest of eight, the Georgetown-educated partner in the state wide law firm of Wilkins Von Mertz has Germanic-Midwestern roots that show through with the shoulder-length blonde hair and breezy small-town manners, which are decidedly unlawyerish. “My law partner Jeffery Wilkins and I like to think of ourselves as the anti-lawyers. We live and work amongst them but really don’t like lawyers at all” says Wolf with a smirk. Wife Ali is a petite, dark-haired beauty with a shy smile who is herself a paralegal. The couple’s all-American good looks and well-traveled banter as we tour their newly opened Wolf’s Museum of Mystery has them appearing more like surfers or the pop-art crowd than a former Air Force JAG attorney and wife.
“It was a dream of mine to construct a place that appealed to all the senses so we painted ceiling to floor; filled each room with a different aroma and blasted 1950’s Midway sounds off the balcony. I have long imagined a place where people could not only buy the type of things they have seen at Ripley’s but seek legal advice as well - A place where you could get a shrunken head and the legal answers to make it happen.” Actually, the urbane 39-year old gives off no creepy-dude vibes, even when discussing his exotic collecting over the past 20 years like the exchange of letters for a brief period with celebrity mass murderer Charles Manson.
“I thought it would be great if I could get his (music) album signed for the collection. However, after a brief exchange … He wrote back, ‘I don’t see you as you but only through me and I think Wolf only sees himself.” “ I am probably the only lawyer in the world who was told off by Chucky Manson.”
Wolfgang (and yes - that really is his given name) says he’s not really sure why he began collecting objects that would seem truly bizarre to most but asserts many of his interests are to items with “energy.” “The purchase of an innocuous Ouija board can quickly spiral into such things as ritual items used by ancient tribal leaders who performed human sacrifice - It’s an exceedingly slippery-slope.”
But historical significance is critical and whether it be his Egyptian Falcon mummy – or his 1890 embalming table, the Mystery Museum definitely has all the right components to produce a reaction from those who dare enter it.
Wolf says his ‘taxidermy phase’ last year has made for items that are among his most controversial. This would include “Precious,” a still born elephant, and “Jenkins”, the bespectacled giraffe, and while wearing a “lawyer suit” and reading a book on War (Good God, y’all…) shows the curator’s quirky humor. One visitor favorite is the (seemingly) smiling baboon having a beer. Wolf is quick to point out that every animal in the museum did pass from natural causes and all were acquired from a zoo taxidermist. “I have never hunted or even shot a gun but collecting exotic taxidermy is simply part and parcel to dealing in oddities.”
More (dark) stars of the collection include:
• A complete set of six signed paintings by “the Doctor of Death” Jack Kevorkian
• Four authentic turn-of-the-century Chinese Hell Scrolls
• An original Hitler oil painting recovered from the Reich Chancellery after the fall of Berlin
• John Wayne Gacy’s personally owned Bible complete with hand written passages
• An Asian “Burping of the Dead” bib used in Hindu cremation ceremonies
Busted out for one night only - tonight for halloween - skull caps from two executed criminals with carved protecting spells to prevent avenging spirits. Circa 1880 & bone tested
However, there are also Objects d’ art that can be appreciated by anyone to include: a vintage Chinese “doctor’s lady” carved from bone and once used by doctors to discreetly diagnose upper class women; and several pieces purchased from a former African National Geographic Director that include an authentic 1815 starred “Napoleon as Caesar” Brazier table which may have be owned by the general himself and an 1890 Egyptian Sarcophagus movie prop from Abbott and Costello’s “The Mummy.”
What makes the shop truly amazing is that not only can you see some of the rarest items in the world but every item is for sale. “I wanted to create one of the rarest shops in the United States and where else to do it then the most haunted city!” Wolf is particularly interested in trade with other high end collectors. “This is one way I’ve found some of my very best pieces.”