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The Limbless Magician of 18th Century London

The men and women gathered at the Corner House near Charing Cross in London had come to see a tragedy. A man cut off from above the knees at birth and possessing gnarled stumps that ended at the elbows had circulated an advertisement promising to demonstrate his feats in magic, calligraphy, art, and music.

They prepared themselves for a cruel sight. He had already been refused an opportunity to perform in Nuremberg, Germany, where officials feared he could upset pregnant audience members.

And so Matthew Buchinger had traveled to England, where morbid curiosity outbid concern for public sensibilities. Like the bearded women and pinheads that would populate sideshows in the centuries to come, Buchinger’s success depended on the appeal of seeing nature go awry.

But the little man—he stood only 29 inches tall—was different in one very significant way from his predecessors: Buchinger was not an ornament. Simply existing on stage was not the show. As the crowd stared, jaws slack, their host expertly threaded a needle. He played multiple instruments, several with the assistance of custom-made machines. He produced a penknife and quill, then sculpted for himself a perfect drawing utensil. He crafted incredible calligraphy, some of which was purchased on the spot by the stunned observers. He shaved himself with a straight razor without flaw.

When the crowd thought they had seen everything—the man was doing many things at an advanced level they could not do at all—he produced the three cups used by magicians to hide and produce objects. As their eyes tracked the cup with the hidden ball, Buchinger tipped it over to reveal a bird anxious to take flight.

It was a sensational show, one he would perform six times a day for many years. He entertained King George I, married four times, and raised 14 children. His fame grew to the point where “Buchinger” became slang for “small.”

He would always see those same faces, looks of sadness or amusement for the pitiable man slowly morphing into awe. How else could one react to a master of sleight-of-hand who had no hands?

Welcome Library, London via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Buchinger was born in Anspach, Germany in 1674 to parents of modest means—though not so modest they had any problem feeding their eight other children. Of the brood, only Matthew (sometimes written as “Matthias” and “Buckinger”) was with defect. He likely had phocomelia, a congenital disorder that produces missing limbs in an erratic fashion. Buchinger had a right arm that stopped short of where one would expect to find an elbow; his left extended slightly past that, providing a little flexion. Each limb was topped with a protuberance that looked like a mildly-inflated balloon, callused from crawling on all fours.

Buchinger’s parents kept him largely hidden from view for most of his adolescence. He gravitated toward skills that flourished in isolation: calligraphy, music, and art. Holding an object with his right stub and securing it with his left allowed him surprising dexterity, which he perfected with constant practice.

Feeling he had a skill set that stood in sharp contrast to his appearance, Buchinger wanted to see if he could impress someone of influence. He arrived in England in his forties, eager to display his skills for an approving (and wealthy) audience. The welcome party included King George, who was possibly intrigued by one of Buchinger’s elaborate and boastful biographical scrawls:

The King was entertained by Buchinger, who hoped English royalty might want to subsidize his life. In 1716, he gave the King a custom-made instrument and a delicate request for what would amount to a hardship pension. His Highness declined, but paid a small sum for the gift and sent him on his way.

Dismayed, Buchinger decided to take up performing as a vocation. At the time, England had a fierce appetite for "monsters," with dwarves and limbless attractions of all varieties drawing crowds. Buchinger appeared in multiple places in the London area and promised to demonstrate his mastery of 13 unique skills for one shilling per attendee. In addition to magic, he could deal cards and play dice; load and shoot a firearm; and play instruments, often with the addition of a device that modified it for his needs. Such adaptation was part of Buchinger’s appeal: His mind was innovative, and his physical limitations were circumvented by his intellect.

England was charmed: The shows were popular and there was even demand for him to make house calls for private performances.

Unfortunately, his most notable public display may have been a result of domestic turmoil. While married to his second wife, Buchinger was said to have been victimized by verbal and physical abuse. His tolerance ended abruptly: He knocked her down to the ground in the street and began pummeling her with his choked-off appendages until she swore she would never raise a hand to him again. (Whether a result of the conflict or not, he was later divorced and married twice more.)

After a stint in Scotland, Buchinger returned to freshen up his routine. He could now play the bagpipe, dancing in tune in a manner he described “as well as any man, without legs.”

For all of Buchinger’s elaborate stage devices, it took little more than pen and paper to reveal his incredible aptitude for calligraphy. The hours he spent cradling a writing utensil between his stumps developed what was effectively a unified and steady hand: He could write backwards, upside-down, and even reverse letters for a mirror effect.

Illustrations, which he often sold at shows, were detailed beyond measure. Buchinger drew many self-portraits, including one where he had meticulously written several Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer into the curls of his hair:

His work was sometimes undertaken on order from admirers. Others were for his own amusement: He once drew his own family tree where he was the trunk, his many wives the branches, and his many, many children the fruit. And there is at least one surviving example of another hobby: building ships and other miniatures in bottles. Buchinger's model of an underwater mine—complete with tiny workers in knee-length trousers—is believed to be one of the earliest examples of the craft. 

When he sensed a population was getting tired of his act, Buchinger would travel somewhere else, bouncing from England to Scotland to Ireland and back again. Growing fatigued, he again asked for a pension, this time from the Palatine Commissioner, on the logic that his third wife was part of their culture. Down to just two shows a day, he complained employees were eating into his profits. The Commissioner was unmoved.

In 1733, he wrote to the Earl of Oxford offering a drawing that had taken him 15 months to complete, for sale at a price of the Earl’s choosing. In it, he made vague reference to an “ague and feavour” that he felt could prevent him from ever working again. Whether this was true or simple salesmanship—a chance to grab the last work of a decaying artist—is unknown. Six years later, he was dead at the age of 65. Though it’s not clear what could be learned from his skeleton, he had insisted a friend at a local university deliver his body to science.

Having charmed the people of Ireland, his passing brought about public notices. In reviewing his life, the Dublin Penny remarked that Buchinger died “at an advanced age, in easy circumstances, and much respected.”

Buchinger collectors were avid both in his life and following his death; some of his papers reside at the British Library’s Harleian Collection, while other etchings and originals are in the hands of enthusiasts. Each is typically accompanied by a lengthy signature that acts as an abbreviated autobiography, with Buchinger always referring to himself as being “born without hands and feet.” It seemed important to him that no work went out into the world without people being aware of his considerable physical limitations—his way of having one last chance to surprise.  

 

Additional Sources:
The Great Illusionists.

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History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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iStock

Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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David Kessler, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
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Food
The Little-Known History of Fruit Roll-Ups
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David Kessler, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The thin sheets of “fruit treats” known as Fruit Roll-Ups have been a staple of supermarkets since 1983, when General Mills introduced the snack to satisfy the sweet tooth of kids everywhere. But as Thrillist writer Gabriella Gershenson recently discovered, the Fruit Roll-Up has an origin that goes much further back—all the way to the turn of the 20th century.

The small community of Syrian immigrants in New York City in the early 1900s didn’t have the packaging or marketing power of General Mills, but they had the novel idea of offering an apricot-sourced “fruit leather” they called amardeen. A grocery proprietor named George Shalhoub would import an apricot paste from Syria that came in massive sheets. At the request of customers, employees would snip off a slice and offer the floppy treat that was named after cowhide because it was so hard to chew.

Although Shalhoub’s business relocated to Brooklyn in the 1940s, the embryonic fruit sheet continued to thrive. George’s grandson, Louis, decided to sell crushed, dried apricots in individually packaged servings. The business later became known as Joray, which sold the first commercial fruit roll-up in 1960. When a trade publication detailed the family’s process in the early 1970s, it opened the floodgates for other companies to begin making the distinctive treat. Sunkist was an early player, but when General Mills put their considerable advertising power behind their Fruit Roll-Ups, they became synonymous with the sticky snack.

Joray is still in business, offering kosher roll-ups that rely more heavily on fruit than the more processed commercial version. But the companies have one important thing in common: They both have the sense not to refer to their product as “fruit leather.”

[h/t Thrillist]

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