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.
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.