Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Original Thin Man

Isaac Sprague, who styled himself as "The Original Thin Man", was born in Bridgewater, Massachussetts, on May 12, 1841, to Nathaniel Sprague, a shoemaker, and his wife Betsy. Both were strong, robust people; Nathaniel stood six feet tall and weighed 170 pounds, while Betsy was five feet, four inches tall and weighed 145 pounds. Baby Isaac weighed 12 ½ pounds at birth, but began losing weight at the age of two months. For the remainder of his first year, he remained frail, and his mother feared that he would die. Miraculously, however, he started gaining weight around his first birthday and continued to grow normally until he was 12 years old.

Young Isaac was an active, vigorous boy who loved to swim. When, at the age of 12, he mysteriously began losing weight again, doctors blamed an excess of swimming. At the time he was helping his father and brothers in the family shoemaking shop. His father believed that confinement in the shop might be the cause of Isaac's weight loss, so he closed the shop and opened a grocery store instead, where Isaac could work in the open-air delivery wagons. This drastic change had no effect on Isaac's weight, however; nor did the fatty foods or medical treatments his parents administered to reverse his condition. In all, they spent over $2,000 trying to make him well, but to no avail. By the time he was 25, he had become so weak that he could not work at all.

The same year, Sprague and his brother visited a local circus, where he gained free admission by displaying his emaciated arms to the doorman. Word reached the owner of the show that an extraordinary thin man was visiting that day, and he hunted Sprague down and offered him a job as a living skeleton. Sprague accepted. At the time, he stood five feet, four inches tall, and weighed just 52 pounds, yet he ate enough to feed two average-sized men.

Sprague found circus work an easy way to earn money without stressing his feeble body. After a stint with the North American Circus, he wrote to P.T. Barnum and earned himself a position in the famous showman’s museum. In 1868 he was asleep in Barnum’s New American Museum when fire broke out; he narrowly escaped. The same year he allowed himself to be examined in Boston by numerous physicians, including Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. Dr. Holmes named Sprague’s condition "excessive, progressive muscular atrophy" but was unable to come up with a cause. Others made the curious prediction that Sprague's body would eventually become completely ankylosed, turning him into an ossified man rather than just a thin man.

Sprague was married twice, first in 1867 to a Massachusetts native named Tamar who was ten years younger than he. Between 1868 and 1872 they had three sons – Alphonse, Lorenzo and Edmond - all healthy, robust children. In 1882, Sprague’s health began to decline. A notoriously eccentric and miserly man, he made the macabre business move of selling his body to Harvard Medical School for $1,000. Around the same time, he and his first wife were divorced, and he met Minnie Thompson. She was a contestant in a beauty pageant hosted by Bunnell's Museum, where Sprague was appearing. When the judges awarded her neither first nor second prize, Sprague berated them, declaring them unfit to rule on the subject of feminine beauty. Miss Thompson was flattered by the gesture and instantly felt attracted to the red-haired museum freak. They were married in secret in Jersey City, New Jersey, between Sprague’s museum engagements. From then on, they would appear together as "The Living Skeleton and Wife".

Three years later, his health was so poor that he was given only six months to live. On Monday, January 6, 1887, having outlived doctors' expectations but still quite sick, he was engaged to perform in Boston. When he appeared onstage, ailing from pneumonia, he interrupted the lecturer, saying "Don't call me the living skeleton; call me the dying skeleton", and even wagered $250 that he would die before the following Saturday. On Monday the 13th, he called a doctor to his hotel room and asked for the least expensive prescription available. On Tuesday, he died in his wife's arms. [Credit: http://www.phreeque.com/]

An original CDV photo measuring approximately 4 1/8 x 2 7/16 inches. Available here.

1 comment:

flannery o'kafka said...

Totally fascinating...without the back story, I could imagine him to be Kafka's hunger artist.