John Coffey (sometimes known as James) was the man who stood on the shoulders on the original Living Skeleton, Isaac W. Sprague, and thenceforth brought a little flair and panache to the role of “thin man”.
Born in Piqua, Ohio in 1852, Coffey didn’t began to waste away until he was nearly 30 years old. Doctors can only speculate why; eventually he was down to under 70 pounds. After billing himself as the “Ohio Skeleton” at a Chicago Dime Museum, he realized that there was something unsatisfying about just sitting there for the crowds to gawk at, so he created a character for himself, decked himself out in dapper duds and changed his name to the “Skeleton Dude” (“dude” in the sense of Fancy Dan, a city slicker, for those who don’t recognize the original derivation.) He promoted himself as a ladies man. His favorite p.r. stunt was to either pretend to marry various freak show thin and fat ladies, or else he would hold contests for a new bride in each town he stopped at – always choosing his own wife, Mary when it came down to the clinch. He toured with the Barnum and Bailey shows starting in 1889, extending his fame to Europe.
In 1905, as the result of an injury he lost the use of his legs and began to gain weight – – disastrous in his line of work! He tried his luck as a palm reader for a time, but it was no soap. Countless imitators arose to fill the vacuum, each claiming to be the original, one and only Skeleton Dude. But we’ve just told you who that was. He passed away, broke and obscure, circa 1912.
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.