“Professor” Emelius T. Dread was an itinerant showman in the late 19th century. He made ends meet by performing as a vaudeville magician, touring throughout Europe. His stage performances became known for the morbid, Grand Guignol-style illusions and Dread’s macabre sense of humor. Fascinated with the Occult, Dread often took inspiration from real rituals and rites when designing his stage performances; the notorious Black Magician Aleister Crowley attended a performance of Dread’s as a young boy, later remarked on the show’s “Curious authenticity.” He dreamed of one day creating his very own year-round fairground, as were beginning to become popular.
One day, in 1884, Dread met the man who is possible the infamous sideshow “freak” of all time: Joseph Carey “John” Merrick, AKA “the Elephant Man”. Merrick wrote to Dread, knowing of Dread’s show business connections, hoping to establish himself as a sideshow attraction in a bid to escape the workhouses of Leicester. Dread agreed, and, with the help from an old vaudeville associate named Sam Torr, assembled a collection human oddities and toured under the banner of “Prof. E.T. Dread’s Museum of the Weird”. The “Museum” was essentially a travelling tent show that featured a collection of bizarre artifacts, such as actual murder weapons, and a stage performance with Dread as the Master of Ceremonies, introducing acts such as Anastasia the Bearded Lady, The Invincible Galletti, the Wild Men of Borneo, and of course, Merrick, the star attraction. A notorious eccentric, Dread helped gain attention for the troupe by the outlandish appearance he conceived for his role as barker and MC – he twisted his hair into dreadlocks to match his name, and sported outlandish harlequin makeup. The toured all across Europe, and were incredibly successful. Members of the troupe later remembered how Merrick & Dread seemed especially close; once, when a drunken, rowdy patron loudly referred to Merrick as a “dumb animal”, Dread actually jumped from the stage in a rage and broken the man’s nose. Eventually, the show was re-christened “Merrick & Dread’s Museum of Wonders”.
Dread shared his plans with Merrick for one day building a permanent amusement park attraction, possibly in the United States. Merrick, who by this this point had substantial funds saved up, was initially willing to invest in his friend’s dream. Only fate had other ideas. In seems that in some point in the spring of 1886, during a tour in Brussels, Merrick and Dread had some kind of falling out. Why it happened is not know, but Galletti, the strongman of the troupe, later stated that Merrick’s Christian faith had alienated him from Dread and his Occult practices. Regardless, Merrick returned to England, and was eventually admitted to the London Hospital as a permanent resident by Frederick Treves.
Almost immediately after Merrick’s departure, Dread’s sideshow began losing money hand over fist. Desperate to win back his star attraction, Dread weekly wrote letters to Merrick, trying to win him back, to no avail. He tried to visit Merrick during his time at the hospital, but Merrick refused to see him. Dr. Treves later remarked that “The only man John (Merrick) was ever truly afraid was Emelius Dread.” Broke, Dread returned to performing as a stage magician. Eventually, in December of 1889, Dread managed to arrange a meeting with Merrick, still hoping to revive their former partnership. While no one else was present, nurses heard much angry shouting from Dread, later seeing him running from Merrick’s room, clutching at his left eye; Merrick stated that he struck him, but would not say why. Five months later, Merrick was found dead in his room of suffocation. His death was blamed on his abnormally large cranium having caused him to suffocate in his sleep, but some whispered Prof. Dread had taken his revenge on the Elephant Man for blinded eye; some even said that Merrick’s death was the result of Black Magic.
In the summer of 1890, Dread left England for the US. It was there that that he found employment as a performer at Steeplechase Park on Coney Island, one of the first amusement parks in the US. Around this time, Dread began an obsession with dark rides and funhouses. He would spend late nights designing and re-designing his amusement park dream, only now the plans got darker and darker, and the amusements and shows more sinister. For almost 30 years, Dread bid his time and saved his money, waiting for the opportunity.
Eventually, in 1931, he launched not an amusement park but a traveling carnival – Merrick & Dread’s Carnival of Wonders. No one was really sure why he used his former partner’s name. Dread himself never said why. The carnival did gain some infamy for Dread’s employing mostly ex-cons. Touring the country, Dread’s carnival was enormously successful. For four years it toured the country. But curiously, it left a string of mysterious deaths and disappearances. Eventually, FBI investigators caught up to the carnival in the town of Indiana, Pennsylvania in October of 1935. When they arrived, they found it completely abandoned. While exploring the grounds, not a single person was found. Entering some of the train cars, they found fresh, steaming cups of coffee, as though they had just been set down. In Prof. Dread’s private car, they found the entire car set up as though for an Occult ritual. Human blood was found on the scene, but never any bodies.The carnival was trucked off to the local junkyards, and the strange disappearance was largely forgotten about by the people of Indiana, PA. But some say, on cold October nights, if the moon is bright and the wind is blowing, you can almost smell the aroma of cotton candy and hear the sound of a ghostly circus calliope approaching...
|The only known photograph of a young Emelius Dread (right) and Joseph Merrick (left) in the early days of the Museum of the Weird.|