Matthias Buchinger was “little more than the trunk of a man,” but he was also dexterous, talented, and capable, which is why he became known as “the wonderful little man of Nuremberg.” Buchinger was born in Ansbach, Germany, on 2 June (or perhaps 3) 1674, without hands, feet, or thighs and was the youngest of nine children. James Caulfield, an English author and printseller, described Buchinger:
“[He possessed] two excrescences growing from the shoulder-blades, more resembling fins of a fish than arms of a man; but who nevertheless was able to write well, and to perform many curious and active tricks.”
This knack for writing and tricks came about because of the following:
[H]is parents … were of humble rank … and, during his childhood, being distressed at his unnatural form, concealed him as much as possible; but at length, as he grew older, finding him an encumbrance, they bethought themselves of providing him with some employment, which should necessarily be a sedentary one, and … had at one time an intention of apprenticing him to a tailor … [but] were forced to abandon this plan, as they could find no place for the thimble.”
Matthias Buchinger, sometimes called Matthew Buckinger by the English, grew to a height of 29 inches. His contemporaries noted that he “performed such wonders as had never been done by any but himself.” He was also highly dexterous and talented. He played music, with what one person called a “strange flute in consort with the bagpipe, dulcimer, and trumpet … [and] was likewise supposed to possess considerable abilities for the mechanics, having conceived the design of constructing machines to play … all sorts of music.” He was also known for his card and dice-playing abilities. He performed conjuring and tricks with cups and balls, corn, and live birds, making them appear and disappear. He was also no less talented when writing and accomplished it in such a curious fashion “that the most ingenious writing-masters [could] scarcely parallize [sic] him.”
Buchinger was also an ingenious and talented artist. Despite his fin-like appendages, he drew realistic portraits of people’s faces and penned flowers, coats of arms, and other such things. One amazing and intricate drawing that Buchinger accomplished was his own portrait, described as follows:
“[The portrait was] exquisitely done on vellum, in which he most ingeniously contrived to insert in the flowing curls of the wig the 27th, 121st, 128th, 140th, 149th, and 150th Psalms, [shown in the illustration at the right] together with the Lord’s Prayer, most beautifully and fairly written.”
Buchinger also created on vellum “the Ten commandments, creed, and other things, in very minute writing, within an architectural design.”
Buchinger exhibited himself in Nuremberg and three successive Emperors of Germany saw him. Early in the 1700s, he traveled to Scotland before he headed to England, where he also exhibited himself before nobles and kings. In fact, he was patronized by King George I and Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford. He performed daily — every two hours from 10am until 8pm — next door to the Two Blackamoors’ Heads in Holbourn, near Southampton Street. One handbill noted his abilities — playing instruments, drawing, performing tricks, playing skittles, threading a needle, and dancing a “hornpipe in highland dress” — and stated that “all these being done without hands, makes all that see him say he is the only artist in the world.”
For having no real limbs, Buchinger was quite the rake. He married four times and was the father to eleven (and maybe as many as fourteen) children. His second wife “was in the habit of treating him extremely ill, frequently beating and other ways insulting him.” Apparently, he put up with her bad behavior for quite some time until one day he could no longer bear it.
“[He was so upset,] he sprung upon her like a fury, got her down, and buffeted her with his stumps within an inch of her life; nor would he suffer her to arise until she promised amendment in future, which it seems she prudently adopted through fear of another thrashing.”
Exactly when Buchinger died seems unclear. Some people claim it was in 1726, others claim 1732, and still others set the date of his death as late as 1739 or 1740 (although it appears one of the latter dates may be correct as he was supposedly in Dublin in 1737). What is clear is that he died in Cork, Ireland. Oone of the most memorable poems about him was published in 1726 and titled “Poem on Matthew Buckinger: The Greatest German Living.” It follows:
See Gallants, wonder and behold
This German, of imperfect Mold
No feet, no Leggs, no Thighs, no Hands,
Yet all that Art can do commands.
Fixed in his Stumps, directs the Quill
With wonderous Gravity and Skill;
What Gifts are to the Mind deny’d,
By Art and Care may be supply’d.
Now wou’d thy Fame have been so great,
Had Nature form’d thee quite compleat.
- Bradley, John William, A Dictionary of Miniaturists, Illuminators, Calligraphers, and Copyists, Vol. 1, 1887
- Caulfield, James, Portraits, Memoirs, and Characters, of Remarkable Person, from the Revolution in 1688 to the End of the Reign of George II, Vol. 2, 1819
- Hardy, Philip Dixon, The Dublin Penny Journal, Vol. 1, 1832
- Hodgkin, John Eliot, Rariora, 1902
- Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum, Vol. 2, 1804
- Wood, Edward J., Giants and Dwarfs, 1868