Turtle Bunbury

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HISTORY

HEROES AND VILLAINS

MATTHIAS BUCHINGER (1674-1739) – THE GREATEST GERMAN LIVING

 

Temple Bar, Dublin, 1720. The crowd gathered at the Crown and Anchor in Sycamore Alley had never seen anything quite like it. A man in his forties, born without hands, legs or thighs, was performing magic tricks and music before their very eyes.

‘From what was but a lifeless ball before, at his command, a living bird will soar,’ marvelled a Trinity College student. ‘He twists himself about the Floor with considerable agility,’ observed another, ‘raising one side a little & turning on the other as on a pivot.’ [i.a]

The performer was Matthias Buchinger, one of the best-known celebrities of his generation, a magical, musical, artistic genius who measured just twenty-nine inches in height.

The story of this enigmatic German, who died in Cork City in 1739, is explored in a gorgeously illustrated book, ‘Matthias Buchinger - The Greatest German Living’, by Ricky Jay, a contemporary stage magician who curated an exhibition on Buchinger for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2016.

Buchinger was born in the Bavarian city of Ansbach on 2 June 1674. [i.b] It’s thought he had phocomelia, a congenital disorder that causes arms and legs to malform; the Irish tenor Ronan Tynan was also born with it.

Verifiable accounts of Buchinger’s early life are rare but his parents evidently had sufficient means to feed him and his eight siblings, none of whom shared his flaw. It is sometimes said his parents were so “distressed at his usual form” that they “concealed” him from sight.

At some point, young Matthias opted to go on the road as a performer. The first record of him is at the Easter Fair in Leipzig in 1694 where he mesmerised the crowds who came to see him ‘perform artistic acts with his stumps.’ By 1698, he could shuffle cards, thread a needle and load and shoot both a pistol and a rifle with pinpoint accuracy. He could also comb and powder his wig, shave himself, grind corn into flour and cut paper into ‘curious shapes.’[ii]

He was a whizz at nine-pin bowling. One of his tricks was to balance a glass of liquor on top of a skittle and then to down the same skittle from a distance without spilling a drop.

By 1710, he was travelling extensively to fairgrounds and markets across Germany, France, the Netherlands and Denmark; the first of his four wives was a Dane who bore him a daughter, Charlota.

We don’t know if he spoke when he performed, or whether he was funny or grandiose. Nor do we know how he travelled, nor who with, nor where he stayed in these cities. Ricky Jay wondered whether he might have been transported in a palanquin-style crate, with long poles extended, similar to that in which the giant Brobdingnagians carried the diminutive Gulliver in Jonathan Swift’s epic. Surely, Buchinger was a direct inspiration for Swift’s Lilliputians; when ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ was first published in 1726, the German would have been a well-known figure for many of Swift’s readers.

Self-portraits of Buchinger in his tricorn hat were widely circulated on souvenir prints, portraits, monographs and, later, elegies. Not everyone welcomed him with open arms; the Council of the City of Nuremberg restricted his performances to inns ‘for the sake of pregnant women’; it was believed that the traumatic sight of him might affect the form of unborn babies.

Meanwhile, Buchinger continued to up his game, becoming a master swordsman and a brilliant magician, performing tricks with coin, dice, card (leger-de-main) and, his pièce de résistance, producing a real bird from a cup and balls.[iii]

His musical repertoire included the flute, bagpipe, oboe, tambourine, dulcimer, guitar, kettledrum, flageolet and trumpet. He reputedly played most of them ‘in the style of a finished master.’ Each instrument was personally modified to suit.

In 1717 he performed before seven-year-old King Louis XV of France in the Tuileries garden in Paris, for which he received a hefty 120 livres. He also performed for the German Kaiser and the kings of Sweden, Denmark, Prussia, Poland and England.

However, away from his showbiz celebrity, Buchinger’s true passion was micrography, the art of forming perfect, tiny letters with a quill and ink. It is a skill very few master calligraphers can achieve but Buchinger excelled to such an extent that, according to one account, ‘he will wager one hundred to one that no one can be found in the surrounding country who is his equal and who can do with a quill what he can.’

Arguably the finest example is a self-portrait in which, when his wig is closely examined, the tiny curls transpire to be seven complete psalms and the Lord’s Prayer. A microscopic examination of the monarch’s bodice in a portrait of Queen Anne likewise revealed a perfect drawing of Saint George on horseback, slaying a dragon.

He made family trees in the same vein; when the branches were looked at with an eye-glass, the names and dates appeared. He could also ‘write the Lord’s Prayer within the compass of a shilling’.

And yet there is no record of him ever using a magnifying glass of any shape to create these extraordinary masterpieces; they appear to have been done with the naked eye.[iv]

His expertise quickly caught the imagination of the ruling elite and Buchinger prospered by drawing elaborate yet intricate coats of arms, family trees, portraits and wedding papers for emperors, kings, nobles and their womenfolk.

In 1714, George, Elector of Hanover, was crowned king of Great Britain and Ireland. It has been claimed that Buchinger befriended the new king by gifting him a flute of his own invention and that he subsequently moved to London as part of George I’s retinue. An article published in the Dublin Penny Journal in 1833, over a century later, said Buchinger had hoped the German-speaking monarch would grant him a pension so that he could live ‘without the necessity of exhibiting himself to the public gaze.’ The same article said the king fobbed him off with twenty guineas so that was the end of that.

Either way, he arrived in London in 1717 as an unknown commodity but quickly began charming the elite into commissioning calligraphed family trees and such like. The income was insufficient to keep him off the road although when he then embarked on extensive tours of England, Scotland and Ireland, he seems to have eschewed public fairs and shows in favour of performances at public rooms and inns.

He was to become particularly attached to Ireland which he first visited in 1720 and where he eventually died in 1739. Robert Harrison, a student at Trinity College, Dublin, saw him at the Crown and Anchor in Temple Bar, in 1720, and penned this verse:

“Walks without legs, & without feet can stand,
Tho’ void of hands performs the sleight of hand.
From what was but a lifeless ball before,
At his command a living bird will soar.”

It is said that Dr Peter Brown, a former provost of Trinity College and Bishop of Cork, became his patron, while his closest friend was a Mr Francis Smith.

His only known employee was a remarkable man known as ‘Butter Milk’ Jack Magill (1703-1775) who briefly served as his comical sidekick. Born to a poor journeyman carpenter and his buttermilk seller wife, Magill subsequently reverted to carpentry after leaving Buchinger’s service, becoming overseer during the construction of the new Irish Parliament. Having run around St Stephen’s Green naked for a bet, Magill bought himself a seat in the Irish Parliament (Rathcormack, County Cork) and was granted an honorary doctorate of law by Trinity College after he oversaw the construction of the college’s new West Front in the late 1750s.

In 1721, Buchinger’s third wife Ann Catharin Kemelmayer, a fellow German, gave birth to their son George in Cork. Ann died in Galway on 21 January 1722, perhaps in labour. Six months later, Buchinger was married in Belfast to his fourth and final wife, Ann Elizabeth Tyse (Teys /Thyses). Two more daughters followed - Sarah was born in Dublin in 1725; Ann Cathrin was born in Belfast on 3 June 1727, Buchinger’s 53rd birthday. ( He also visited Carrickmacross (where he inscribed a bible for a Jane Folds) and Lisburn.)

Born in 1700, Ann was a native of the small town of Herborn in the German state of Hesse-Cassel. Following the death of her Palatine father, Mathias Tyse, her widowed mother (Anna Margreta Tyse) was given a grant by the Irish Parliament enabling her to live on Colonel Abel Ram’s new settlement for German Palatine émigrés at Gorey, County Wexford. The Ram estate lay next to that of the Loftus family and it is surely no coincidence that Buchinger produced an elaborate calligraphic drawing entitled the “Loftus Atchievment” [sic] in Drogheda on vellum in May 1722.

Buchinger seems to have adopted Anne’s brother John Jost Tyse and sister Mary Tyse, and sought a similar grant on their behalf. However, as he explained to the Palatine Commissioners, he was already the father of eight children and the burden of two more dependents weighed heavily upon him. As he put it: ‘Most of the kingdom has visited your Petitioner, who is no longer a novelty to them, having shewed through all the kingdom.’[v]

On 3 June 1727, he etched a family tree in sepia-toned ink for Thomas Banks, a Belfast merchant-banker (and agent to the earl of Donegall’s estate), and his wife Elizabeth Montgomery; their children’s names and dates are enclosed within apples on the tree. He also drew the coat of arms and crests of Robert Clayton, a controversial Bishop of Cork.

Buchinger was constantly to’ing and fro’ing to Scotland and England, giving several performances for the Royal family at St James’s Palace. In 1726 a broadside hailed him as ‘the Greatest German Living’.

Towards the end of 1727, he headed to Edinburgh to pursue his artistic career and he seems to have remained in Scotland and England for the next eight years. One senses that he was still performing tricks with his dexterous ‘stumps’ to bring in much-needed cash. In1733, for instance, he was to be seen in London, dancing ‘a Horn-pipe in a Highland dress’.

He returned to Ireland in late 1735 and stayed there until his passing in Cork on Friday 3 August 1739.[vi] Ann, his widow, was sole executrix of his will which was proved in the Irish Prerogative Court on 4 October 1739.

The Dublin Penny Journal echoes the case of Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant, by claiming Buchinger was so appalled by the prospect of ‘posthumous dissection’ that he urged his friend Francis Smyth to claim his body.[vii] It is said that his skeleton was ultimately acquired by Dr Barry, a collector of oddities, and put on show, possibly in Thomas Burgh’s Anatomy House at Trinity College (built in 1711, where the Berkeley Library now stands). If so, it is believed to have been lost when the anatomical museum was destroyed by fire in 1855. Dr Barry is assumed to have been either Sir Edward Barry or possibly his son, Nathaniel Barry. Both men were Presidents of the College of Surgeons.

It is suggested on Wikipedia that some seventy women later claimed they carried his child. Ricky Jay found no evidence for any of this, although it might be noted that in ‘A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue’ (S. Hooper: London, 1788), the author Francis Grose, a frequent visitor to Ireland, included “Buckinger’s Boot” as a colloquialism for what he referred to as ‘a woman’s commodity’.

*****

With thanks to Marti and Austin Sullivan, Dolores Kearney, Maria O’Brien (rootsnbranches.com), Professor Michael John Gorman (Chair of Life Sciences in Society, LMU Munich) and Crónán Ó Doibhlin (Head of Special Collections, Archives and Repository Services, Boole Library,University College Cork).

*****

FURTHER READING

‘Matthias Buchinger: “The Greatest German Living", by Ricky Jay Whose Peregrinations in Search of the "Little Man of Nuremberg" are Herein Revealed.’ (Los Angeles: Siglio, 2016.

Bernard Browne - 'The German Palatine Settlement in Wexford and beyond' (2018).

Dolores Kearney, ‘The Search for Abel Ram’s Settlement of Gorey Palatines’, Trowel Volume XV (2014), edited by Abigail Ash, Alexandra Guglielmi, Mark Haughton and Ian Ostericher, p. 8.

‘Matthew Buchinger’, Dublin Penny Journal, v.1,no.44, 27 April 1833, p.352 (this article can be found online.)

Sadlier, Thomas Ulick: ‘An eighteenth century dwarf [Matthew Buckinger]. Journal of the County Kildare Archaeological Society, v.X (1922-8), p.49-60.

Both of these articles are informative. Sadlier’s article includes a list of authorities references and portraits of Buchinger.

Image of him at https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e0/Matthewbuchinger.jpg

FOOTNOTES

[i.a] Lewis Nicola, a Dublin-born Huguenot who loved to Philadelphia and later co-founded the American Philosophical Society, recalled seeing Buchinger ‘twist himself about the Floor with considerable agility, raising one side a little & turning on the other as on a pivot.’

[i.b] He spelled both his first and second names in a wide variety of ways; in Ireland, he was generally referred to as ‘Matthew.’

[ii] Very few first-hand accounts of Buchinger survive but at his 1694 performance in Leipzig he was under the management of Michael Chron of Merckendorff. In 1698 he was back in Leipzig for the Michaelmas Fair, where crowds gathered for eight days straight. At a show in Strasbourg in 1710, he appears to have been managed by Georg Weinhard.

[iii] One of his rivals, Isaac Fawkes, had tricks that included blowing the spots off playing cards, or making cards dance, and converting a single card into an egg.

[iv] Ricky Jay notes David Hockney’s proposal that our eyesight was far more acute before the advent of electricity.

[v] The Gentleman's Magazine, Part 2 (1808). Bernard Browne, author of 'The German Palatine Settlement in Wexford and beyond' and Hank Jones (San Diego) have both checked their sources for further clues on the Tyse/ Twiss/ Teys connection but nothing has yet surfaced.

[vi] The Scots Magazine recorded his death: ‘Matthew Buckinger, in Ireland, aged 65, born without legs or arms, whose performances are well known in the world.’

[vii] “Possessed of a vigorous mind, he was so far from being reluctant to contemplate the idea of posthumous dissection, that he even enjoined Mr Smyth to claim his body, if his death should occur in Dublin, for the School of Anatomy there, and, finally, Dr Barry of Cork, obtained his body after he died, and his skeleton is said to be preserved in the city.” (Dublin Penny Journal, 1833)

 

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