Claude Ambroise Seurat: The Living Skeleton

Oct 20, 2022 0 comments

Freak shows were a very popular medium of entertainment in Europe and the United States of America for the major part of the 19th century. These formally organized exhibitions presented people with various physical deformities and anomalies, such as conjoined twins, people with extra limbs or no limbs, midgets, giants, as well as fabricated human exhibits such as cannibals and savages. “Living skeletons” were part of the freak show’s repertoire. These were often men with unusually thin bodies.

One of the most famous ‘living skeletons’, or ‘human skeletons’ as they were sometimes referred to, was Claude Ambroise Seurat.

Claude Ambroise Seurat

Claude Ambroise Seurat, the living skeleton. Photo: Wellcome Collection

Claude Seurat was born in Troyes, in the department of Champaign, France, on the 10 April, 1797. At birth, Seurat seemed healthy and normal, but as the child grew, he began to display symptoms of bodily wasting. At the age of ten, Seurat was “as healthy as other children, except that his chest was depressed, and he was much weaker”. By the age of fourteen, his frame “dwindled away to the skeleton form”, which it ever afterwards retained. At the age of 28, he was reported to be 5 feet 7 inches tall, and weighed only 78 pounds (about 35 kg).

Seurat’s case excited great interest in France, and a number of medical men offered Seurat’s father considerable sums of money to acquire the body of Seurat after his death. But Seurat’s father refused, stating that in the event of his son’s death, he should be peacefully consigned to the cemetery of his native city.

In 1825, Seurat travelled to London to be exhibited at the Chinese gallery in Pall Mall. One of the visitors, William Hone, who went to attend the exhibition wrote:

I was instantly riveted by his amazing emaciation; he seemed another 'Lazarus, come forth' without his grave-clothes, and for a moment I was too consternated to observe more than his general appearance. My eye then first caught the arm as the most remarkable limb; from the shoulder to the elbow it is like an ivory German flute somewhat deepened in colour by age; it, is not larger, and the skin is of that hue, and, not having a trace of muscle, it is as perfect a cylinder as a writing rule. Amazed by the wasted limbs, I was still more amazed by the extraordinary depression of the chest. Its indentation is similar to that which an over-careful mother makes in the pillowed surface of an infant's bed for its repose. Nature has here inverted her own order, and turned the convex inwards, while the nobler organs, obedient to her will, maintain life by the gentle exercise of their wonted functions in a lower region. Below the ribs, the trunk so immediately curves in, that the red band of the silk covering, though it is only loosely placed, seems a tourniquet to constrict the bowels within their prison-house, and the hip-bones, being of their natural size, the waist is like a wasp's. By this part of the frame we are reminded of some descriptions of the abstemious and Bedouin Arab of the desert, in whom it is said the abdomen seems to cling to the vertebrae. If the integument of the bowels can be called flesh, it is the only flesh on the body: for it seems to have wholly shrunk from the limbs; and where the muscles that have not wholly disappeared remain, they are also shrunk. He wears shoes to keep cold from his feet, which are not otherwise shaped than those of people who have been accustomed to wear tight shoes; his instep is good, and by no means so flat as in the generality of tavern waiters. His legs are not more ill-shaped than in extremely thin or much wasted persons; the right leg, which is somewhat larger than the left, is not less than were the legs of the late Mr. Suett, the comedian.

Contemporary physicians regarded Seurat as a case of "marcores, an early obliteration of the lacteal vessels and mesenteric glands." Richard Park, a senior registrar in gastroenterology and general medicine in Glasgow Royal Infirmary, suggests that there is little evidence for malabsorption, and the emaciation was likely caused by inadequate oral intake of food (Seurat’s daily intake of food amounted to a penny roll and small quantities of wine)due to dysphagia, which is evident from a description of Seurat by William Hone:

In eating, he masticates his victuals very much, taking small pieces, as the passage to the stomach would not admit of any great repletion, and in drinking the same precaution is required, otherwise suffocation would ensue... a slight impediment to his swallowing with despatch, of such morsels as are not cut very small.

Claude Ambroise Seurat

Pencil drawing of Claude Ambroise Seurat. Photo: Wellcome Collection

Engraving of Claude Ambroise Seurat by Robert Cruikshank. Photo: Wellcome Collection

Seurat also suffered from a number of congenital deformity such as Sprengel's deformity, which was first identified in 1891, sixty six years after Seurat’s exhibition in London. Park believes that Seurat may have been the earliest recorded case of Sprengel's deformity. Seurat may also have had Klippel-Feil syndrome, a triad of short neck, low posterior hair line, and reduced neck movements.

A year after his exhibition in Britain, Seurat went back to France where he became part of a travelling circus that arrived in Bordeaux in 1826. His last recorded performance was in 1833 at Dinan in Brittany, after which Seurat disappeared from the public eye. Nobody knew where he went, but it was rumored that he went back to London, where he died, after which Sir Astley Cooper performed the necropsy. Seurat's skeleton was allegedly placed in the museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, although there are no records of Sir Astley Cooper's findings nor of Seurat's skeleton in the college museum.

Writing in 1868, historian Gilbert Richard Redgrave commented: “I have not yet been able to ascertain the date of his death. Who knows whether the poor fellow may not still be going the round of the French fairs?”

# Claude-Ambroise Seurat, Memoir, Wellcome Collection
# William Hone, The Every-Day Book
# Richard Park, Goya's living skeleton, BMJ


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