Matthew Buchinger: "Little More Than the Trunk of a Man"
Updated: Feb 11
I actually wrote this back in August, but as a tester article for another project, which is still happening but very slowly, so as you may be able to tell, it's in a slighly different style.
If you like this, let me know in the comments or on social media because it was really fun to write and then I can do it more.
Matthew Buchinger was the youngest of 9 children (8 boys, 1 girl), born in 1674 in Ansbach (now Germany but was at that time, the Holy Roman Empire which I haven't heard about in SO LONG. I feel like we always talked about it in school and now I just don't, and no smartarse it's not just because it was dissolved in 1806).
He was born without hands or legs, described as "little more than the trunk of a man, saving two excrescences growing from the shoulder-blades, more resembling fins of a fish than arms of a man."
By some accounts, it seems that his parents almost hid him away, however we can't really assume that just because there is no record of him he was specifically hidden, he may have just been a boring child. It's not that unusual to have no records of a child, since newspapers didn't publish as much people-living-their-lives as they do now, and so unless he got married, died or got arrested as a child, we probably wouldn't find much.
In what may surprise many people, there is no indication that his parents ever exhibited him in order to make money for the family. "Freak shows" and exhibitions of disabled people weren't common at this time like they were in the 20th century, and so there wasn't the same demand for entertainingly impaired people to be scouted by the circus-men of the day.
What often happened instead was a more haphazard method of travelling and performing as individuals, and Matthew certainly did this once he reached adulthood.
However, in his childhood years it seems that he had been fully educated and spent a lot of time perfecting creative skills, like drawing, engraving, building ships in bottles, close up magic and playing musical instruments.
He built himself all the contraptions to be able to play his musical instruments himself, and is still recognised by bottled art organisations for his skills (although like you I assume, I never knew there was such a thing).
A lot of what has been written about him up to now has been done in a way that makes modern day disabled people cringe their eyes inside out, like that he was "a truly extraordinary little man".
He became known as "the Greatest German Living" except for when he was dead, and "the Little Man from Nuremberg", despite not being from Nuremberg (Ancbach was 25 miles away so arguably that was close enough, like when people living in Reading go to America and tell them they're from London).
He travelled around Europe "to entertain kings and aristocrats as well as hoi polloi [commoners] with amazing feats of physical dexterity", a bit like a travelling exhibition or the "freak shows" that we are familiar with and anticipate (thanks to PT Barnham, the twat), except he was organising it himself. This kind of self promotion was often the only option for people who were "physically strange", but as well as the LOOK AT ME AND MY WEIRD BODY, which we can all agree was a large part of it, he also used it as an opportunity to sell his skills, like his bottle sculptures, paintings and drawings.
He left Germany to go to England, to try and get a court appointment to perform for the king, George I. He was unsuccessful, but it was a perfectly reasonable idea, even though the concept of court jesters who were a part of the royal household had primarily died out in England. After the restoration (where we sacked off the republicans and brought back the monarchy) Charles II didn't appoint a court jester, but financially and vocally supported the arts. It was common for royals to host and commission private performances for just themselves and invited guests in their palaces, and to support the performers financially, although not in as complete a way as before (almost like a subscription).
He went to Ireland, and continued to support himself there with musical performances on adapted instruments like the trumpet and dulcimer and some he'd invented himself because why wouldn't you I guess? In particular, his magic was also incredibly popular, and he seems to have also been an excellent shot, doing trick shooting (I don't think I would find that at all relaxing to watch but whatever) and also dancing the hornpipe (which from I can tell from my extensive googling is basically a Scottish riverdance but sailors, with an added bit of cossack crouching to the floor).
He lived in Ireland until he died in 1739, after having married 4 times and was very prolific in spreading his seed, since, according to him, his penis was the only limb he had (don't get mad at me, I didn't make it up). He had 14 children by 8 different women (at the very least, he's said to have had 70 children by different mistresses but that just seems ridiculous). Not only that, long after he died "Buchinger's boot" was apparently used to refer to a woman's vagina, 'cos, the shoe for the limb... Look I shouldn't have to explain this to you.
His longest lasting contribution has been to the field of art. The detail that was in his engravings is remarkable, particularly the micro calligraphy that was a part of a number of his pieces. In one of his self portraits, if you look close enough you can see that his curls are actually made up of the words of the Lord's Prayer and other verses from the bible. These words are smaller than is possible for most of us to read, and are only clearly visible by microscope. It is for this reason that he has been the subject of more recent study, by a magician named Ricky Jay, and the book and exhibition about him has allowed modern audiences to share in the opinion of Matthew at the time he was alive; that he was the most remarkable man.
As a eulogy poem from 1722 (yes, many years before he actually died, don't question it) writes:
Buckinger’s gone, and quit this earthly Stage,
Who was the only Wonder of this Age;
This little Worthy, inwardly compleat,
His Soul inspired with celestial Heat,
Perform’d his Wonders with such artful Grace,
You’d judge him one of more than humane Race.