Originally published May 6, 2013 at The Los Angeles Beat
We have tripped the light fantastic into the dark side of Los Angeles in a few Offbeat L.A. articles already. We’ve followed the Manson family’s footsteps with the Dearly Departed tour company, hiked to a failed Nazi retreat in Pacific Palisades and photographed some gruesome props at Dapper Cadaver. But sandwiched between the dark side of L.A. and the robin’s egg blue skies of the Happiest Place on Earth is a decidedly gray area. What some consider morbid, others consider mainstream. Medical memorabilia and a visit to the coroners office may make some readers squeamish, but others will squeal with delight.
A Medical Museum run by physicians may seem rather straight forward until you think a little more deeply about the strange ideas and quackery that surrounded Western medicine until fairly recently. Leeches, anyone? How about bloodletting? And a gift shop run by the L.A. Coroner’s office seems downright wrong. Or maybe it’s downright right… Well, it all depends upon your taste, because your gray area may align with mine and see the humor and surreality in places like these. So cheers to the gray places, where the darkness kisses the sunlight.
The Southern California Medical Museum, though decidedly unusual, is located in an otherwise common area of Riverside, California, about an hour’s drive from downtown Los Angeles. Tucked away inside a one-story complex run by the Riverside County Medical Association, its existence is probably not even known by its neighbors, which include gas stations, taco joints and working class family homes. In fact, the museum is a part of a working conference room belonging to the Medical Association, so if a meeting is taking place you will likely have to wait until it is finished to view the odd collection of medical artifacts. Once inside you will be simultaneously amused, intrigued, surprised and panic stricken by some of the gadgets and equipment early doctors used with the intention of healing the human body. Right beside a full scale model of a 1900-1920 era doctor’s office, with its human mannequins appearing quite quaint and caring, you will see some of the almost barbaric looking tools doctors used on the Civil War battlefields. A portable amputation kit was obviously quite necessary, but the anesthesia given, whisky or chloroform, makes one view the rugged amputation saw in a sinister light. Located on the shelf with the Civil War artifacts is a Minié Ball, a glass bullet shaped object that was actually found on a real battlefield and was meant to be bit down upon in times of great pain. This one has teeth marks. Apparently when the pain became too great for at least one Civil War soldier he literally had to “bite the bullet”.
Within the tall glass cases that line the perimeter of the conference room you will find the obvious shelves full of vintage medicine. It’s curious to look at the bottles of Snake Oil or old bottles of a libido enhancing formula, one containing arsenic. Among the bric-a-brac there are Electroshock machines, pill making instruments, wax molds of women’s cervixes, a phallic shaped device from 1920 called a “prostate warmer” that was supposed to be inserted rectally for healing properties that are questionably dubious, and a birthing chair used by pregnant women in the late 1800’s. Though I’ve highlighted some of the oddest examples there is a lot to be looked at at this weird little museum and I suggest if you happen to find yourself in Riverside you stop in and take a gander. I was not fortunate to catch a formal tour of this museum, but I was told that the tours are interesting and full of a lot of laughs, so catch one if you are able.
The Southern California Medical Museum: 3993 Jurupa Ave, Suite 102, Riverside, CA 92506; (951) 787-7700.
Los Angeles, being a peculiar city that often looks death in the eye with a sunny disposition, was the first city in the world to add a gift shop to their County Coroner’s Office. Established in 1993, Skeletons in the Closet was started after a secretary working at the office had t-shirts made as gag gifts for her co-workers. They were such a hit that the inventory expanded to be sold to the public and eventually grew to include beach towels with body outlines, mugs, shot glasses, mouse pads, body bags, toe tags and an ever growing supply of death related memorabilia. All of the merchandise is created in a tongue-in-cheek way, but obviously with the intention of staring death in the face and giving it the big middle finger. In fact the mission statement from the gift shop’s own website specifically states, “The purpose of the store is to promote how fragile life is and create awareness and responsibility toward one’s actions.”
This store is obviously busy at Halloween, but is also is popular for clever unexpected birthday gifts. It is located in a small room on the first floor of the Los Angeles Coroner’s building, just past downtown where East L.A. begins. It is quite unusual that the gift shop would be directly off the same hallway where loved ones come to identify their deceased, but the trepidation and the cautiousness adds to the strangeness of the experience. To tiptoe, whispering into this odd little store gives it a decidedly more eerie flavor than if it had been located in, say, the Glendale Galleria.
The popularity and revue generating ability of Skeletons in the Closet prompted the Las Vegas Clark County Coroner’s office to follow L.A.’s example and open their own gift shop in 2003. Los Angeles’ own little shop definitely falls into the strange gray area of questionable taste and some might say questionable ethics, but some of the most interesting things in life fall in that chasm. Give me a nice, nuanced gray anytime, our baby blue skies will always be waiting on the other side of the door.
Skeletons in the Closet: 1104 N. Mission Rd.
Los Angeles, CA 90033; (M-F 8:30am-4:00pm)