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The Waxworks

The waxworks is a colonial industry; the more murderers, the more it thrives. The manufacturer always keeps a lot of bodies on hand, and immediately upon a malefactor being hanged pops a head upon one of them, advertises it, and in rush the public... In this museum may also be seen other enlivening little incidents in the murdering line, and also a cheerful lot of casts (taken after death) of celebrities whose decease has not been attributable to ill health.

Melbourne Punch June 1865

Waxworks were among the various types of entertainment venue to emerge in Australian cities in the mid-19th century. In Melbourne, wax modeller Ellen Williams opened a waxworks at the theatre end of Bourke Street in 1858, operating in tandem with the 'Phrenological Museum' run by her companion, Philemon Sohier, whom she married in 1859. She later opened a business in Sydney and toured elements of her collection to Tasmania during the 1860s.

Taking Madame Tussaud’s as a model, Madame Sohier's Waxworks Exhibition featured the usual, illustrious subjects – monarchs, military heroes and the like – as well as a 'Criminals Room' containing lurid effigies of infamous offenders, their waxen likenesses often being based on death masks.

Although these displays overtly appealed to predilections for scandal or titillation, waxworks proprietors often justified their inclusion by claiming that they provided a means of instruction and moral improvement. This blurred distinction between entertainment and information was exemplified by Sohier's successor, Max Kreitmayer, a medical modeller by training, who acquired the Melbourne business in 1870. 

3 portraits

1Ned Kelly death mask, date unknown an unknown artist after Maximilian Kreitmayer. 2Death mask of George Melville courtesy of National Trust of Australia (Victoria), Old Melbourne Gaol Collection.
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