Home is Where the Arm Is: The Boonsboro Museum of History

July 22, 2017—I was there for a severed arm—yellow bones covered in ragged, mummified flesh of the same color, looking for all the world like the cannibal equivalent of a half-gnawed chicken wing, and dating to somewhere around the Civil War. That’s all I was there to see. I just didn’t know, man, that there was so much more.

The Boonsboro Museum of History, sounds, well, extremely local. It can be found, naturally, on the main street of that town, which itself is in that part of Maryland where the state starts to attenuate and get really weird.

As we approached the museum, we saw its owner, Doug Bast, sitting on the porch with a friend. They were eating pie. Doug was gray and bearded, stooped and tremulous. An old timer, in the parlance. Upon seeing us he immediately handed his slice to his friend, grabbed a cane, and made to get up and show us around. “No way. Enjoy your pie. We’ll wander around and come back in a few minutes,” we told him.

We meandered down a main street full of 19th century buildings, past a place called Crawford’s Restaurant, Guns, and Ammo. Past a boutique hotel owned by Nora Roberts, the romance author. That and its Civil War history are the town’s claims to fame, if you’d allow that distortion of the term. After checking out a bookstore that was Nora Roberts-themed and probably owned by her, we headed back to the museum and its promise of a grisly anatomical treasure.

Doug Bast started the museum in his home, and has been guiding strangers through it since 1975. These days, the hours of the museum are extremely limited: Five hours a week and only on Sundays. Maybe that was why when we returned, we found a group of 10 people ready for Blast to lead them through his collection. We slid silently into the tour.

The stooped, shaking man seemed to draw strength from the collection around him. And what a collection it was. Just in that first room were thousands of artifacts covering the floor, walls, and ceiling, and filling the glass cases between: Lead civil war bullets that had oxidized white and been carved into the shapes of nooses and stars and cups. Nineteenth century books on witchcraft. Pikes from John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, which had occurred just 17 miles from where we stood. An array of antique firearms and cannons. I even saw a human skull and, yes, the arm I was there to see was in that room. No placard gave any information about the arm itself. Instead, one of those soft white bullets was lodged into a bit of its shattered bone as a visual aid for explaining amputations.

Had I gone home after that first room, I would have been happy, but I’d have missed so much more.

Every square inch of the first floor was covered in artifacts—religious icons, Victorian hair art, a surprising number of coffins, a cane made from a bull penis—a sprawling, diverse collection of pieces, each one only having in common the simple fact that Bast wanted it in his house.

Once we were done with the first floor, Bast divided us into two groups. The upstairs floor couldn’t support everyone’s weight, he told us. Upstairs, he showed us a piece of masonry from the White House, an entire room full of glassware, Egyptian relics, antique dolls. At one point, we passed a small kitchen, the counter of which was covered with Costco-sized bins of cheese balls. He really did live here.

After that, the tour continued to the neighboring building. It was a former carpenter shop, the family business. That explained all the coffins. Bast’s grandfather was a carpenter, his father was a carpenter, and Bast, well: “I wanted to run a museum.”

Inside the two-story shop, the collection was far less organized than the house, but no less a trove. He showed us hobo art and music boxes, more coffins, a giant made of carpet (“That’s me,” said Bast), Abraham Lincoln artifacts, an entire library’s worth of old books, and natural history specimens. I even spied pop culture stuff here and there, like a Castle Grayskull playset from He-Man and a mid-20th century Ouija Board manufactured by the William Fuld company.

My favorite artifact in his entire collection, though, even more so than the arm that drew me there, was a humble little wooden desk that had seen better days. It sat unobtrusively against the wall. No placard announced it, and it was topped by a pitcher in a bowl. But, Bast assured us, this desk was built from the wood of the gallows of John Brown himself.

I lived 15 miles from that museum for five years, and never once made it there. It’s a moral I’ve had to re-learn countless times in my journeys to find oddity: Never pass up a local history museum, especially one powered by the passion of one person.