As far as human curiosities go, The Living Skeleton was always a classic attraction. Living Skeletons, sometimes referred to as ‘shadows’ in the exhibition business, were generally adult men afflicted with some sort of consumption disease and their emaciated presence was practically a standard in every circus, exhibition or sideshow for over 100 years.
That precedent and astounding popularity was largely due to one very thin man.
That man was Isaac Sprague.
However, by the time our subject John William Coffey entered the scene, Sprague was physically on his way out of the spotlight. It was Coffey who would not only build upon the popularity and the foundation built by his predecessor, but also expand and revolutionize the role for generations to come.
John Coffey was born completely healthy in Piqua, Ohio in 1852. By 1881 Coffey was a well-trained barber in Cedar Rapids, married a school teacher named Mary and supported seven children. But in that same year, John Coffey began to grow thin and he didn’t stop withering away until his 5’7”frame held less than 70 pounds.
Coffey began his exhibition career in Chicago dime museums. He was billed as “The Ohio Skeleton” and he often appeared shirtless in front awed crowds. His ribs could be counted from across the room. His presentation was standard for the time and consisted of little more than groups of gawking rubes passing through and Coffey standing in a corner. There was no act, no flair to the display and very little dignity involved and John Coffey decided the situation simply would not do.
John opted to wear fine and custom tailored suits. He was fond of dapper three-piece suits with vertical stripes, to better accent his lean frame, and spared no expense on caps, hat, watches and monocles. John reinvented himself as a confident gentleman. John Coffey portrayed himself as an eligible bachelor, a caricature of cocky confidence juxtaposed with a sickly and frail frame. John Coffey was a dandy, a ‘dude’ and he quickly became very famous as “The Skeleton Dude’.
Despite his thin appearance, the wealth Coffey appeared to have combined with his sharp wit and charm, soon stirred up several female suitors in every town he visited. Coffey, announced a contest to determine a bride and hundreds of legitimate proposals soon poured in. Coffey would meticulously go through the entries before selecting his wife Mary, who would join him in whatever town he happened to be in before John would move on to the next town and repeat the entire promotional stunt all over again. In some cities he would spice up the drama by having the family of the bride object to the union and cause turmoil at the wedding for the benefit of paying guests.
On occasions, Coffey was known to ‘marry’ other young ladies in the interest of good press. John married a fellow skeleton Miss Emma Schaller no fewer than 20 times and married professional 450 pound Fat Lady Miss Gertie Platt at least once.
In September of 1889 John Coffey was contracted by the Barnum & Bailey circus to participate in their first European tour. By all accounts John Coffey stole the show and charmed everyone in London. In an effort to punctuate the vanity of the character he portrayed, the souvenir photos John Coffey sold at the time focused on his good looks and curled moustache a completely ignored his unique physique. The photos were consistently sold out.
In 1905, Coffey was forced to retire from exhibition following a terrible fall that resulted in limited movement. He made an attempt at becoming a palm reader as well as a lecturer on the subject of his life. Unfortunately his lifestyle change resulted in weight gain and John Coffey wasn’t much of a skeleton anymore and, therefore, not much of an attraction. A fire in that same year destroyed most of his belongings and his wife Mary left him.
John Coffey, like his predecessor Sprague, died as a pauper. The exact time of his demise and his whereabouts are unknown. But his impact on the industry was undeniable as several showmen Skeleton followed – each trying to be as dapper and compelling as John Coffey.