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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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Art
5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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presidents
George Washington’s Incredible Hair Routine

America's Founding Fathers had some truly defining locks, but we tend to think of those well-coiffed white curls—with their black ribbon hair ties and perfectly-managed frizz—as being wigs. Not so in the case of the main man himself, George Washington.

As Robert Krulwich reported at National Geographic, a 2010 biography on our first president—Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow—reveals that the man “never wore a wig.” In fact, his signature style was simply the result of an elaborately constructed coiffure that far surpasses most morning hair routines, and even some “fancy” hair routines.

The style Washington was sporting was actually a tough look for his day. In the late 18th century, such a hairdo would have been worn by military men.

While the hair itself was all real, the color was not. Washington’s true hue was a reddish brown color, which he powdered in a fashion that’s truly delightful to imagine. George would (likely) don a powdering robe, dip a puff made of silk strips into his powder of choice (there are a few options for what he might have used), bend his head over, and shake the puff out over his scalp in a big cloud.

To achieve the actual ‘do, Washington kept his hair long and would then pull it back into a tight braid or simply tie it at the back. This helped to showcase the forehead, which was very in vogue at the time. On occasion, he—or an attendant—would bunch the slack into a black silk bag at the nape of the neck, perhaps to help protect his clothing from the powder. Then he would fluff the hair on each side of his head to make “wings” and secure the look with pomade or good old natural oils.

To get a better sense of the play-by-play, check out the awesome illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton that accompany Krulwich’s post.

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