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?
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.
The Great Illusionists.