ISAAC W. SPRAGUE – The Original Living Skeleton

Isaac W. Sprague was born on May 21, 1841 in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts. According to one of his early cabinet cards, he was a normal and active child until the age of twelve – when he began to rapidly lose weight.

His concerned parents, alarmed by his weight lost, forbade young Isaac from high energy activities. Despite this, the boy continued to loose weight and his now terrified parents took Isaac to the best doctors they could find. Unfortunately the doctors were also baffled and Isaac continued to wither away despite a healthy appetite.

As an adult, Isaac apprenticed under his father as a cobbler and later worked as a grocer. However, as his emaciation continued, Isaac found his energy depleted. It soon became too difficult for Isaac to continue working – it was then that the world of sideshow came calling.

In 1865, during a visit to a local carnival a promoter spotted Isaac and offered him a job. At first, the young man refused. But he soon realized that he could earn a good living by capitalizing on his looks. He began touring as ‘The Living Skeleton’ and quickly rose in popularity. In less than a year he auditioned for P. T. Barnum and was hired on a salary of $80 a week.

His career with Barnum was brief as Barnum’s American Museum burned down for the second time in 1868. The skeletal Isaac barely managed to escape the museum alive – following his escape, he left sideshow for awhile.

During his premature retirement, he met and married a Miss Tamar Moore and had three healthy sons. In dire straights due to poor financial decisions, he resumed touring with Barnum and others. His financial problems, and perhaps a gambling addiction, continued and ultimately resulted in Isaac W. Sprague dying in poverty on January 5, 1887 in Chicago.

While his weight varied over his career, an official measurement was taken by a physician when Isaac was forty-four. At a height of five feet and six inches, Isaac weighed only forty-three pounds.

Despite numerous medical exams during his lifetime, his condition was never officially identified. He was labeled as having ‘an extreme case of progressive muscular atrophy’. As a result Isaac was required to eat constantly. In fact, he was well known to carry a flask of sweetened dairy milk around his neck – drinking from it to from time to time to keep himself alive and conscious.

Believe it or not, the ‘Living Skeleton’ came to be a fairly common sideshow attraction. In fact, it was not uncommon, in a feat of inspired promotion, for a sideshow Skeleton Man to marry the local Fat Lady in an extravagant ceremony. The local press was, of course, always invited to attend.

Image: cabinet card from Sprague’s stint with Barnum, circa 1868.



  • Reply January 12, 2008


    are there any known photos?

  • Reply February 13, 2008

    J. Tithonus Pednaud

    Yes there are. I, however, do not own one.

  • Reply May 11, 2008


    I wonder how many performers P.T. Barnum lost for a time being after the museum fires?

    That’s got to stink, having that sort of condition. Hope it wasn’t too painful for him.

  • Reply November 27, 2008


    I am slightly envious. If only that disease could be identified and possibly managed into something less severe, I would love to be infected with it and be able to eat all day and not be a fatass. awesome.

    • Reply February 17, 2016


      its muscular atrophy and you sure dont want that

  • Reply February 4, 2009

    Diane Harmon

    I have been searching any and all info on Isaac W. Sprague for a few years, as I am of the Sprague family through his brother Charles. Some info, such as Census, or Vital Records, is fact, and other stories are true, only partly true, or made up. In any case, I picture Isaac as a small town New England boy, who must have had great courage to make a living the only way he could. The early Census record show him living with brothers and a sister, and neighbors that were not only friends, but relatives….a far cry from the teeming City of Chicago where he met his pitiful demise. Of great interest to me is the “marriage” to Minnie Thompson…it strikes me as being a rank publicity stunt by Bonnell….Isaac was in terrible shape by the time this supposedly took place….and when he died his funeral was back home from the home of his brother Charles. In any case, all of the information available on the internet has been helpful to add to whatever thought I have on the matter.

  • Reply July 7, 2009


    hmmm…he looks like he has just escaped from Auschwitz

    • Reply June 1, 2012


      Gasp you mentioned Auschwitz

  • Reply December 24, 2009


    I was told he had lived in my house in hanson, ma for some years. and had a store in the cellar.

  • Reply May 15, 2010



  • Reply March 16, 2011

    Bob Zimmermann

    I just ran across a picture of him with his wife and 3 sons when he was 38 years old, 5′-5 1/2″ tall and weighed 46 pounds. Photo was taken by Charles Eisenmann…in 1879/1880.

  • Reply February 23, 2013

    Lucy Harris

    Funny and sad he is like a human play toy

  • Reply August 6, 2013


    I recently found out we had a “Living Skeleton” in our family. JB Garrison.Quite the story

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