Isaac Sprague, The Living Skeleton
By the end of the 19th century, so-called ‘Living Skeletons’ were relatively common in circuses and other touring sideshows. People would pay good money to marvel at dangerously thin individuals – and even more to see stunts such as thin men marrying the circus Fat Lady. But Isaac Sprague was the original – as his own business card made clear.
Unlike many ‘human curiosities’, Spragg’s biography is pretty comprehensive. Indeed, Barnum didn’t even bother to make up a ludicrous back story for him. Quite simply, Spragg was born in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts, in 1841. By all accounts, he was a perfectly healthy child. But then, when he turned 12, his weight started plummeting. Doctors couldn’t help, and even staying sedentary and eating lots did nothing to halt the weight loss. His condition meant that a position as an apprentice cobbler didn’t work out. All looked lost. But then, in 1865, a carnival promoter spotted him and offered him a chance to make some money from his condition.
After just a few months working in showbusiness, P.T. Barnum spotted Spragg. He signed him up on a contract of $80 a week. Within weeks, however, Barnum’s American Museum was engulfed in flames – Spratt only just escaped with his life. He vowed to quit the business. And for a while he did and even started a family. However, financial difficulties – not helped by his gambling habit – caused Spratt to join Barnum again. This time, he would stay with him for around a decade.
Even now, nobody knows for certain why Spratt weighed just 43lbs. It’s likely he suffered from extreme muscular dystrophy. Certainly, it wasn’t due to starvation – at the circus, he carried around a flask of sweetened milk and was constantly drinking from it, only adding to the sense of mystery.