On Charlotte Street, amongst the idyllic charm of St. Augustine’s historic downtown district, Wolf and Ali Von Mertz live in a lovely two-story Victorian with a wide front porch and quaint backyard. But while many merchants have converted these historic homes into welcoming bed and breakfasts, Wolf and Ali have transformed their home into a museum of curiosities and collectibles with as much history as the oldest city itself. A small chalkboard on the porch next to a hand-painted Bigfoot banner announces the live mermaid performance from 6-7pm in the courtyard. It works to draw people in from the narrow side street. The museum is purposefully not advertised. “We tried that once,” says Ali Von Mertz. “It’s not for us.”
It’s hard to adjust your eyes once you enter the museum that also serves as the family’s full-time home. There is something to catch your eye no matter where you look. A mere $5 gets you in the door, and guests can apply that fee to anything in the museum, whether a bottle of handcrafted Alien Blood hot sauce, a piece of Steampunk-inspired art, or a rare CD recorded by the notorious Charles Manson. Glass display cases are filled with mementos from Wolf Von Mertz’s personal collection, and almost everything is available for sale or trade. In one case is a $700 Megalodon shark tooth fossil with original enamel positioned next to human cranial skull caps from Asia priced to sell at $600 each. An adjacent room contains an authentic iron lung from 1938, a Tsantsa shrunken monkey head, and walls covered in original, signed vintage folk art.
“We’ve been together since high school, and he’s always been a collector. It started with Marilyn Monroe,” Ali Von Mertz says of her husband, who is busily bustling around the courtyard preparing the tank for the evening mermaid show. He stops to rub the head of Chinook, the family’s sled dog, who is contentedly sprawled beneath a banner bearing his name. A couple of cats slink by, getting as much attention for being real live pets among the taxidermied creatures.
Not everything in the museum is goosebump-worthy, but it all has historical significance, like the WWII baby gas mask from Poland or a blood and oil-stained Nazi flag recovered from a German tank. The juxtaposition of a rare Tiffany & Co. silver and 18-karat gold spider cuff bracelet and a Flapper-era watch is ironic when surrounded by a 2,500-year-old elongated human skull and a mummified two-headed baby gaff from PT Barnum’s Great Traveling World Fair dating back to 1873.
Upstairs, the collection evolves from odd, international artifacts to the darker side of Wolf’s collections. The Lizzie Borden bedroom—which serves as the couple’s bedroom after closing—contains crime scene photos, newspaper articles, death certificates, and rubbings of a Borden family tombstone. It also holds a photo of the infamous jury that acquitted Borden, and a radio plays ominous music from the early 1900’s. The theater room dedicated to the couple’s love of horror films and dark comedy is just across the hall. Movies play on a big screen and guests can help themselves to popcorn while perusing props, the walls of photos of the couple with the likes of Elvira and Robert Englund, and a functioning Exorcist-themed bathroom. The space is available to rent for a party of up to six people for $100 and includes private use of the theater room, bathroom, and exclusive access to any of the 300 Blu-ray film titles in their library for three hours with popcorn and soda. Proceeds will help fund the production of a feature horror film in 2016.
New to the museum is the courtyard mermaid, whom Ali Von Mertz says can hold her breath for up to three minutes underwater. Her live shows are mesmerizing, and the outdoor space is available for private rental, including a live performance. Guided Wine and Wolf tours for a minimum of two persons gives guests the opportunity to sip a glass of wine while learning the history of many of the pieces by Wolf himself.
Easily, the museum’s most macabre items are the letters exchanged between Wolf and Manson, original art by Jack “Dr. Death” Kevorkian, and the Bible once owned by serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Their inclusion is not intended to induce clutching of the chest. It’s not about shock value. Just like everything else in the museum, they are part of history.
Wolf’s Museum of Mystery is open daily from 2-10pm, closed on Wednesdays, at 46 Charlotte Street, 342-8377, www.wolfsmuseumofmystery.com. Subject to close due to weather, emergency, slow day, mood shifts, or acts of God.