Circus Freak Carte-de-Visite featuring Isaac Sprague Known as the “Living Skeleton” who Worked for P.T. Barnum
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c 1878 Circus Freak Carte-de-Visite Photograph featuring Isaac Sprague, also known as P.T. Barnum’s the “Living Skeleton”, Fine.
Carte-de-Visite photograph of Isaac W. Sprague as the “Living Skeleton,” posed with a normal woman and boy who are most likely his wife and son. Period pencil manuscript in the bottom selvage reads: "Isaac W. Sprague. Living Skeleton 10/3/1878." Isaac was born in Massachusetts and had a normal childhood until about the age of 12 when he began to rapidly lose weight. He worked for P.T. Barnum as a sideshow and by the age of 44 he weighed only 43 pounds. He was what we would call today an anorexic. The image measures 3.5” x 2.25” and is laid onto a slightly larger card with no back imprint. The photograph is clear and in good condition of this actual fascinating man. Isaac W. Sprague (May 21, 1841 - January 5, 1887) was an entertainer and sideshow performer, billed as the living human skeleton. He was born on May 21, 1841, in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts.
Although normal for most of his childhood, Sprague began irreversibly losing weight at age 12 after feeling ill after swimming. The weight loss continued throughout his life despite having a healthy appetite. His condition has been described by historians as extreme progressive muscular atrophy. This ultimately led to his death.
Isaac bounced around from job to job during early adulthood. He worked as both a cobbler for his father and a grocer. However, his illness kept him from continuing down either of those career paths. His parents died and Sprague could not work enough to support himself, so he was left unemployed. In 1865, he was offered a job at a circus sideshow, where he became known as "the Living Skeleton" or "the Original Thin Man".
The next year P. T. Barnum hired Sprague to work at his (newly reopened) American Museum. Barnum paid Sprague $80 a week for his services. Sprague remembered the moment Barnum offered him the job: "Mr. Barnum stood very near me, and I overheard him say to his agent, 'Pretty lean man, where did you scare him up?'"
Barnum's Museum burned down in 1868 and Sprague managed to escape with his life. At this point, Sprague took time off to marry his wife, Tamar Moore. They had three sons who lived healthy, normal lives.
Sprague made attempts to stay away from the sideshow, but he could not escape financial distress. It is rumored that in addition to being financially responsible for his wife and their three sons, Sprague had a gambling problem. His condition also kept him from finding real work anywhere other than Barnum's. So he continued to tour off and on throughout the country and eventually overseas.
By the age of 44, he was 5 feet and 6 inches tall with a weight of only 43 pounds. Sprague's condition required him to be constantly taking in nutrients. His health was in such a poor state that he often carried milk in a flask around his neck. He would sip this from time to time to keep himself up and conscious.
He died on January 5, 1887, in poverty, of asphyxia in Chicago, Illinois.
Sprague was the first of many more Living Skeleton acts to come. In a result of forced promotion and work pressure, it was not uncommon for the Living Skeleton act to marry the Fat Lady act.