When Charles Gunther was running a confectionary on State Street in the late 1800s, he displayed in his shop a collection of Civil War memorabilia. But he had something bigger in mind. Much, much bigger.
In 1889, Gunther purchased, shipped by rail to Chicago, and had rebuilt here an entire Civil War prison from Richmond, Virginia. He added a flamboyant medieval castle wall for showbiz effect. And he opened the doors of the Libby Prison War Museum, an attraction that was part history museum, part P. T. Barnum-style attraction.
The museum hired Civil War veterans as guides and displayed genuine Civil War artifacts alongside items of potentially dubious provenance – such as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (said to be the home of the character that inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe), or what was alleged to be a snakeskin from the Garden of Eden.
If Gunther had his way, he would also have shown a real Egyptian pyramid and Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, but neither of those items on his shopping list were for sale.
Most popular, and perhaps also most troubling, was the Abraham Lincoln collection, which included not only artifacts from Lincoln’s life, but also blood-stained items allegedly from the night of his death.
There were more than 250,000 visitors during the first year.
When the flames of Civil War nostalgia grew cold at the turn of the 20th century, the ever-enterprising Gunther converted his building into a 15,000-seat auditorium that saw several more decades of spectacles: the city’s earliest auto shows, convenient to Chicago’s Motor Row, in which the Coliseum was ensconced; the First Ward Ball, an annual tradition in which politicians received honoraria from grateful citizens; six major national political conventions; expos of all kinds; roller derby competitions; and, in its later days, rock shows including the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, and Cream.
The last show played in 1971 and the building was demolished in 1982.