One ticket to the morbid museum

Neville Public Museum’s annual ‘Morbid Curiosities’ exhibit showcases some of the museum’s more ghastly historical items and artifacts

By Kira Doman

Neville Public Museum Education Specialist Ryan Swadley holds a slender cement pillar used as a grave marker for late Green Bay resident C. Johnson’s severed arms. This is one of many items on display through the museum’s Morbid Curiosities exhibit. Kira Doman photo

After the Neville Public Museum postponed their annual Morbid Curiosities exhibit last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum is back and ready to host patrons on an hour-long tour of spine-chilling oddities and artifacts, a history lesson just in time for the Halloween season.

Neville staff intertwine a love for theatrics alongside a passion for history. The tour is littered with eerie lighting and music, which adds a dark ambiance to the exhibit. This year’s exhibit focuses on what happens to our bodies after our lives have ended. The prospect is morbid and daunting for many, but the exhibit highlights how professionals such as funeral directors and historians help loved ones and the public alike understand the process.

Patrons will get a literal behind the scenes view as Neville Public Museum Education Specialist Ryan Swadley said the unique layout of this year’s tour was born out of a lack of floor space and logistical hurdles due to ongoing building renovations.

“We thought bringing people behind the scenes would pique the public’s interest,” Swadley said.

Swadley said the event is a way for patrons to view artifacts the museum currently holds, but can’t or won’t display due to the mature and graphic nature of the items. Past events where tour guides showed behind the scenes artifacts were such a success that the museum had to bring this intimate dive into the gruesome back on an annual basis. The exhibit is for guests 18 years and older due to the graphic nature of the items displayed.

Swadley said the museum frequently receives offers—both electronically and physically—of odd donations.

One morbid item is a narrow, cement pillar that is the eternal resting place for the arms of a former Green Bay resident and local business owner, C. Johnson.

On Sept. 29, 1880, C. Johnson was an unfortunate victim of a ghastly train accident that resulted in the loss of both of his arms.

Swadley said Johnson’s friends found him in a “bloody mess” and their only option was to walk to the closest doctor, who was in Peshtigo (roughly 50 miles away).

“Johnson wasn’t expected to survive this horrific accident,” Swadley said, “but they were able to amputate both of his arms and save his life.”

A damaged metal casket meant to hold a person with intricate designs along the surface.

This item was found during construction of a local hospital and now remains in the possession of the Neville Public Museum.

Photo courtesy of Neville Public Museum

After this tragedy, Johnson went on to establish his own tobacco company, aptly named Armless Tobacco. The cement pillar now housed at the Neville was the tombstone that marked where Johnson’s arms were buried.

“When you got body parts,” Swadley said, “you can’t just throw them away in the garbage.”

Neville is also home to multiple artifacts with rather mysterious backgrounds. During an excavation for a cemetery moving,a casket now on display at the museum was unearthed. Swadley said the device was used for the transportation of dead bodies, but before the embalming process to limit the abundant problem of the smell of the decaying body. The cases would be airtight during the travel and would then be buried. However, this one was broken.

Graves and bodies are sometimes missed while cemeteries are moved. A casket with no grave marker was unearthed during the construction of an area hospital. The casket and body within it were never claimed and have called Neville home since their discovery.

Morbid Curiosities has on more showing this year, on Oct. 26. Interested parties can also reach out to Neville to set up private bookings to view their oddities. More information can be found at www.nevillepublicmuseum.org.


Kira Doman is an editor and freelance journalist who graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay in the Spring of 2021. Her editing work can be found in The Sheepshead Review, The Northern Lights and Ellis Clark’s 2020 novel “With You.” Her writings can be viewed in The Driftwood and Green Bay City Pages. She is passionate about subjects such as social justice, current affairs and the arts. In her spare time, she is a barista, an average yet avid hiker, and a full-time cat mom.

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