Leonard Trask

"The Wonderful Invalid"

 

 

left, pamphlet, THE LIFE AND SUFFERINGS OF LEONARD TRASK, The Wonderful Invalid. [PORTLAND:Printed by David Tucker, 1858].

right, Very rare Carte D'Viste of Leonard Trask. circa 1863. by FASSETT and BASSETT, Lewiston, ME.

 

In the strange history of those who made a living from an acquired mutilation, perhaps none is stranger or more ill-starred than Leonard Trask. Born in Hartford, Maine on June 30, 1805, Trask acquired his contortion of neck and spine in 1833, when a "luckless hog" took fright, and ran beneath his horse's hooves. Flying over his horse's neck onto his own neck, Trask eventually crawled back to his home on a journey that took several days. Amazingly, Trask didn't snap his spinal column, though there is some evidence that landing on his head was not a lesson for future caution.

Though bedridden for months, and as disastrous as it was for his health, for years after, often in excruciating pain, Trask continued to do torturous labor— logging trees in the Maine timber swamps, even in winter without adequate shelter. This abuse caught up to him a year or so later when "the neck and spine ...began to curve, and he began to bow forward."

In the 50 page pamphlet published in 1858 Trask names twenty-two doctors who tried nearly every harrowing 19th-century cure imaginable. Everything from cupping to bleeding, from lobelia emetics to blistering the neck with heat, from deep incisions cut on both sides of the spine to lying in a bed of boiled potatoes, from inserting a strip of linen (a seton) beneath the skin with needles to lying in a tub of cold water and having heated stones tossed in-- none of this halted what Trask calls the "drawing of the spine into a circular form."

In between treatments, though urged to seek charity, he continued to work, until in 1840 he fell from a load of hay. Now crippled further, he consulted more doctors as far away as Boston, but soon his case was judged "hopeless." As grievously described by Trask himself, "his neck and back have continued to curve more and more, every year drawing his head downward upon his breast till there appears but little room to press it farther without stopping entirely the movement of the jaws."

Able to perform little labor but hoeing, Trask took to peddling house to house, though he admits that he often scared young children, women and animals, "defeated by his uncouth figure and deformity."

Then in 1853, again, companion misfortune: as "being in continual danger of accidents on account of his inability to discover objects any distance before him," Trask was thrown from his wagon, breaking four ribs, and his collar bone. When healed he took to walking, though this was also not without danger, as he was "unable to see but a few feet before him without bending backwards."

Throughout it all, this self-described "child of sorrow" staved off "pauperism," raised 7 children while "sustaining a feeble wife" who nursed him "till her health, too, was gone."

Though he came to it late, after much travail, Trask ultimately falls into that category of human anomaly neither born it, nor found seeking its bare sustenance (see "made freaks"), but nonetheless he is marked by a final aim to make coin from his misfortunate deformity. That men would pay to see and read of others injured so unusually by fate has been borne out by a history of those exhibiting themselves after some tragedy miraculously survived. Those that sold their likenesses and histories to support their woefully acquired conditions include the "Broken Neck Wonders" like Barney Baldwin, those left limbless by accident, and many wracked by disease that left their faces and bodies askew.

That disability can "earn" is today considered by some, who misunderstand the history of shows, as always a form of simple exploitation. But this simplification is disproven by Trask— who for so long through super-human endurance avoided the inevitable path to poorhouse, prison, or asylum— who was to succumb finally instead to "the road," i.e. showbiz, exhibition, the sale of pitch books and photographs, i.e. so-called "exploitation" of his bodily wares that allowed him to survive.

The objects produced for Trask to sell which are shown above have survived these 150-plus years because Trask fascinated and continues to fascinate, because he offered and sold something of value— his deformity and morbid suffering. Humans in their most exalted moral role as protector of the weak cannot dispel this human interest in the weak, and usually those on "the high chair" have no interest in the weak except to protect them from others, supposedly unlike their noble selves. Trask did not choose to live his tale of woe, but he did finally choose to exhibit it to earn his living.

For the entrepreneurial freak/handicapped/crippled/human oddity/mental deficient a way to survive was to exploit oneself, or even to be exploited by showmen. Trask was able to choose, and chose to exploit himself: "On account of his strange and peculiar form, many show-men have attempted to hire him in order to take him before the public for exhibition."

His decision not to exhibit himself for showmen, but to exploit his own deformity himself, was made without effort, as this monolithic sentence makes clear:

"His reply has ever been, that his misfortunes and afflictions, his pains and sufferings, were his own; his singular figure and deformity was his own,-- and as it has pleased God so to afflict him, that he had become a living, human curiosity, and a wonder to his fellow men, he would sell or hire himself to no man, to become a source of speculation in their hands-- that though in his physical appearance he scarcely bore the resemblance of humanity, yet through the benignity of a kind of Providence, the 'man within' had been left unimpaired; and if his singular form presented to the mind of his fellow-men, a subject of curiosity, wonder, interest or instruction, the sight should become a source of profit to no one but himself."

In a modern diagnosis, Trask has been described by British rheumatologist, Malcolm I.V. Jayson, to have written the first American description of "Ankylosing spondylitis." This condition is the same as J.R. Bass "Ossified Man" was said to have had. Described as a type of inflammatory arthritis which causes excess bone to form in the joints, it often immobilizing those afflicted. [e]

This page last updated December 31, 2005.

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