Jack Walker Published

Harpers Ferry Wax Museum Closes, Collection’s Fate Uncertain

A red-brick building with a white door frame and white window panels sits on a town street, photographed off center. Beside it, a sign reads "John Brown Wax Museum," with an image of a wax figure. A sign on the door says "closed."
A "closed" sign on the door of the John Brown Wax Museum denotes the end of a decades-old exhibit in Harpers Ferry. The venue was sold to a private retailer this month.
Jack Walker/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The 92 wax figures that fill the John Brown Wax Museum will soon need a new home.

That’s because the museum’s owner, Ted Staley, sold the venue to a private retailer last week, closing the museum permanently. Staley said the retailer has not made public how it will use the space. 

Since it was established by local real estate tycoon Dixie Kilham in 1963, the museum has been a mainstay for tourists visiting downtown Harpers Ferry, visually depicting abolitionist John Brown’s life and 1859 uprising.

But Staley, who bought the museum in 2010, said upkeep has been difficult. He lived in Maryland when he acquired the exhibit, but has since moved to North Carolina and entered “retirement age.”

“Those forces and my proclivity to micromanage makes it difficult,” he said. “So I thought it was time to sell.”

Staley said announcing the museum’s closure brought a mix of anger and understanding from the local community. Many were upset to learn of the tourist attraction’s sudden end, but others had hope for the preservation of the collection.

John Brown was an abolitionist who led a militant uprising against slavery in Harpers Ferry in 1859.

Photo Credit: Ted Staley/John Brown Wax Museum
Several different wax figures of men in military uniforms are posed as if engaging in combat. A man in the foreground has his sword drawn and is looking at a man with a long beard who is squatting down to hold up a fallen soldier. Other men in military uniform fight behind them, and a canon is visible to their side.
Wax figures in the museum depicted the 1859 uprising, as well as scenes of John Brown’s life more broadly.

Photo Credit: Ted Staley/John Brown Wax Museum

Staley said he is currently in talks with several potential buyers within the greater Harpers Ferry area, as well as Washington, D.C. He hopes to sell the collection in one piece.

Ideally, Staley also wants someone to buy the entire collection outright, but said most interested parties have asked to display the collection on a loan until they can reimburse him for the sale.

Regardless, Staley said he hopes news of the sale can ease concerns that a piece of cultural history will remain accessible to the Harpers Ferry community.

“I’ve given them hope. I made it clear that I’m entertaining other people who are interested in keeping it alive, and there have been a lot of people responding,” he said.

In the 14 years he’s run the museum, Staley said he’s learned a lot about both running a business and local tourism. The wax museum marked the first business he owned, but it also marked a longtime passion project.

“The most enjoyable part is when I would actually work the museum myself, because people from all over the world come to Harpers Ferry,” Staley said.

“You get to talk with them about the museum before they go in,” he continued. “I enjoyed that the most.”