Farewell from the Depths

What a difference a tail makes! Trina Mason is at first anxious, but the 26-year-old mermaid performer waxes serene as soon as she wiggles into her Dragon Skin silicone prosthetic. She’s now ready to talk about Wolf’s Museum of Mystery and its impending end—or, in keeping with the St. Augustine attraction’s carnival sideshow theme, its thrilling conclusion.

After an eventful five-and-a-half-year run, the museum of oddities and outsider art is closing the doors of its historic Ancient City abode for good on Jan. 6. Founders Wolfgang and Ali Von Mertz are currently negotiating to acquire a vacant Victorian-era church in upstate New York. They hope to relocate their collection and reopen in 2019.

Their odds for success are solid. Wolf insists that WMOM was a hit with tourists to the Ancient City. Without delving into the books, we can verify that his museum had indeed earned a place in the national (even international) network of underground art enthusiasts. The place was even featured on Travel Channel’s television series Mysteries at the Museum. Online buzz around WMOM is strong and positive. The museum built a community of returning visitors.

So it’s not for lack of business that the museum is closing up shop. Wolf suggests it’s rather because his brash, contemporary attraction fell afoul of the conservative St. Augustine establishment. More about that later.

First, back to the mermaid. Mason has been an integral part of the WMOM story almost since the beginning, but she will not be joining the Mertzes on their voyage north.

“A lot of things brought me and Wolf together,” Mason said, “but now we have our own paths. I’m open to receive more than ever. I don’t know what’s going to happen. The greatest thing [WMOM] served me was security and safety. I knew I’d never be homeless. Wolf empowered me. Now I’m on my own and I’m trying to take that light with me wherever I go.”

Mason’s relationship with the Mertzes began during a trying time in her personal life. The South Florida native drifted to Northeast Florida seven years ago.

“I found an autistic friend up here on YouTube,” she explained. “We finally met in person and he hooked me up with a mermaid tail. He helped me see that I was [on the spectrum]. The tail put me in my comfort zone. He got me a job as a mermaid for a summer at The Ritz-Carlton [Amelia Island]. I was Princess Augustina! I learned how to act. The kids had to believe my character. It was great. Then things went bad.”

A serious of personal upheavals took her to Orlando and back to her native Miami before finding her way once again to St. Augustine.

“The energy of this city is so strong,” she said, intensely. “I knew I wanted to stay here. I couldn’t stay away. It’s tied to the Bermuda Triangle, you know.”

That’s when she met Wolf and Ali Mertz. The couple had already set up shop on Charlotte Street, a downtown byway wedged between the waterfront Avenida Menendez and iconic pedestrian artery St. George Street but lacking the sidewalk appeal of either.

“When we got here, Charlotte Street was dead,” said Wolf as he sat in the courtyard and stroked his pet chicken, Irma. “There had been a bunch of businesses in the house, but none of them stuck. We did. And we helped bring the street to life.”

Wolf’s Museum of Mystery opened July, 1 2013, as St. Augustine geared up for its big 450th birthday celebration. Downtown was a construction site. A lot of businesses ran out of oxygen. But by the time Mason discovered the museum in 2015, WMOM was established as an up-and-coming attraction—despite local skepticism.

“Everyone gave us six months,” he laughed. “Nobody predicted we’d last. Nobody predicted we’d be on TV. Nobody predicted celebrities like Korn would come hang out here. By the time we turn in our keys in January, it will have been nearly six years since we moved in, and these past months have been some of our busiest.”

The secret to their success is Wolf’s passion and Ali’s dedication. The couple run the museum/shop (yes, everything is for sale) themselves. Wolf is a Georgetown graduate and former Air Force lawyer who settled in Northeast Florida with Ali, his wife of more than 20 years, after his discharge.

Wolf has amassed a mighty collection of out-there art and artifacts, including paintings by Jack Kevorkian and a bible once owned by serial killer John Wayne Gacy. The museum occupies the entire house. Even the couple’s living quarters are converted every morning into an exhibit. Each room has its own theme, from the Bathory bathroom to the Borden bedroom.

The place is also a sanctuary for undomesticated animals. Wolf doted in particular on a crippled possum named Freya, now deceased. His new baby is Irma, rescued as a chick from his erstwhile snake-handler. (Irma, it seems, was on the snake’s menu.)

WMOM soon became a beacon for like-minded lovers of the weird and creepy. The Medieval Torture Museum opened on St. George Street in Wolf’s wake. Sales associate Arianna Campbell regularly refers her guests to WMOM.

“Everything’s always the same around here,” she said, “but Wolf’s is anything but. Let’s face it: typical gets boring, and a lot of people are interested in that darker stuff. Wolf’s is definitely my favorite thing in St. Augustine. Hell, Ali and Wolf are some of coolest people I’ve ever met.”

Trina Mason, too, was immediately drawn to the old house and its new owners.

“I was a patron of the museum at first,” she said. “I had a bond with Ali and the possums. Sometimes I would run away there. The place comforted me. I felt safe there. Once I even fell asleep in the courtyard.”

And it was Ali Mertz who would intervene in Mason’s personal life and give the once-and-future mermaid a new start. Mason was miserable and sleeping on a friend’s couch at the time.

“I found myself in a situation I had to get out of,” she recalled. “One day Ali showed up at the door and took me away to the museum.”

With her performance experience and willingness to try anything, Mason quickly became a fixture at WMOM. Her mermaid tank was installed in the building’s back courtyard, and Trina the Mermaid held court there regularly. She even started learning the business ropes.

“They taught me how to run a f*cking business,” she said. “It’s a lot of work!”

Mason also branched out into different types of sideshow performances. She started reading tarot cards on the museum’s front porch. Then, in April 2016, another experiment nearly ended in disaster. Mason had just begun to dabble in fire-breathing. During one courtyard spectacle, she used the wrong fuel and burned her face. While she sustained no permanent damage, the story went viral and caused an uproar. Video circulated among the online fire-breathing community, who accused Mason of ignorance and Mertz of negligence.

Mason suggests that same community failed in its responsibility: “Wolf received
so much drama. Straight up. Mostly because these ‘experienced’ people had the audacity
to attack a new fire-breather instead of teaching us.”

Mason and the Mertzes weathered the episode together, although their relationship would deteriorate in later years for reasons that remain obscure. By the time Wolf announced that his museum would be closing, he and Mason were all but estranged. The mermaid still communicates with Ali and makes the occasional WMOM appearance.

“She’s trouble, man,” he said.

The decision to close the museum had nothing to with interpersonal drama, though, nor with business woes. The building’s lease was up for renewal after five years, and the Mertzes didn’t like the terms.

“The house was dilapidated to begin with,” he explained. “It wasn’t the right place to plant a million-dollar collection. Now the landlord wants us to pay to rehabilitate it, to basically invest in a rental property as if we owned it. The problem is, there’s no room to grow here. We’ve learned a lot of lessons over the last five years. We’re going to take those lessons and start fresh. Our fans will follow.”

There are other forces at work, too. To put it bluntly, the Mertzes are tired of the area’s self-righteous conservatism, an ugly historical legacy that lurks just beneath the placid surface of this tourist mecca. Some god-fearing local yokels suggest that the place is—gasp!—satanic.

“There is a certain climate in St. Augustine,” began Wolf, diplomatically, “and you can take it or you can leave it. But, yeah, I got tired of having bible-thumpers out here all the time.”

Mason put it more bluntly: “I’m so tired of people calling this the town of God and then showing people hate and shame. I want people to be enlightened, to know that each piece at the museum has its story. There’s no light without dark. Can we show some compassion? Haven’t we had enough hatred?”

In the museum’s final months, Mertz has been selling pieces, streamlining the collection in anticipation of the move. The attraction will remain open until Jan. 6, but WMOM’s final event unfolds this weekend. The all-day Dark Christmas shindig boasts a screening of the cult holiday horror film Krampus as well as complimentary spiced wine and a fire pit in the courtyard. New artwork will be unveiled, and Wolf promises to offer discounts on everything in the building.