Today is the birthday of Jonathan R. Bass (1830-1892). Bass was one of a sub-branch of exhibited peoples known as “ossified men”. Afllicted with rheumatism since childhood, he managed to work on the family farm in upstate New York most of his life (eventually reduced to book-keeping), until he was 57 years old, when his body seized up entirely and cataracts took his eyesight. With most of the family who had cared for him now deceased he decided to allow himself to be exhibited at dime museums and sideshows. All over the country, people would come to look at his frozen, emaciated form, which was usually propped up and strapped to a board. Because of his all-liquid diet (his jaw was frozen too) he only weighed 75 pounds. He endured five years of this, apparently with remarkably good cheer, until he passed away of pneumonia in 1892.
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.