A Rather Brief Biography of Niagara
County's Jonathan Bass, the World Famous 'Ossified
Brandon M. Stickney
Who Turned to
Jonathan R. Bass became a celebrity by doing
nothing at all.
One of the most famous and perplexing
medical cases at the turn of the century centered on
this local man whose mysterious affliction made him a
popular show business attraction.
Internationally known as the "Ossified Man",
"Bone Man," or "Stone Man," Jonathan Bass suffered from
a gradual ossification (an ankylosis or freezing of the
joints) that left him completely paralyzed and blind at
age 37. Bass's case baffled the top physicians and
scientists of the Victorian age just as it does today.
There are approximately 200 current cases of partial
ossification in America; while doctors are now-able to
explain the cause, there still is no cure.
Lockport resident Nancy Snell was the wife of
the late John K. Snell, the great, great nephew of the
ossified man. She said the Bass family hailed from a
long line of pioneers from Massachusetts, and claimed
relation to John Adams, as well as to Colonel Jonathan
Bass, a hero of the French and Indian and Revolutionary
Wars. Snell said that "no one in the family had, or
would, become the victim of young Jonathan's mysterious
affliction." Rather, the Bass and Snell families bore a
number of professional and semi-pro
in Cambria on September 25, 1830, Jonathan Bass was the
son of local clothier and farmer William Bass and
homemaker Fannie Richardson Bass. Named after his
colonel grandfather, young Jonathan Bass had an exciting
childhood, growing up in the wild, wooded lands of
Western New York. He was noted for his farm horse
strength, distinctive handsomeness, studious habits, and
Snell has a copy of an autobiographical
booklet, published in 1889 after Bass became famous,
that illustrated his unusual physical strength by
relating the tale of the 15-year-old's fracas with his
rather conservative schoolhouse teacher. Bass skipped
school one sunny autumn day, showed up late the
following day, and found himself the subject of the
school master's wrath.
When the other students had left that
afternoon, the teacher first delivered a stern lecture
and then "administered corporal punishment," brutally
whipping him with a ruler. Surprising the teacher, Bass
seized the ruler after a number of blows and grabbed the
teacher, forcibly holding him "long enough to impress
upon him the realization that the boy could master
The man kicked Bass out, locking the school
house door, but Bass wasn't through with the school
master yet. The young man "burst the door open" and the
two fought until Bass "carried off the
Other than suffering bouts of rheumatism when
he was seven and nine years old, Bass was a healthy
child who grew into a strapping teen. His father,
William, died when Bass was just 14 years old, leaving
Bass to attend school and labor on the family farm to
support his mother and three brothers, Foster, Seth, and
W.B. The youngest child was just four days old when the
father passed away.
When he was 16, Bass lived briefly with
family friend G.W. Rogers in Lockport and took the tough
summer job of moving timber from Lockport to Troy, New
York, along the Erie Canal. The autobiographical booklet
says, "There was no one on the canal who could handle a
rudder and tow line better than he," but the long hours
in the water may have been a trigger to the physical
malady that lay in wait.
Bass continued to work summer jobs and attend
school in the winter, when, at 17, he felt the first
subtle pains of what he had no idea was the pending
ossification. Not since that second bout of rheumatism,
which kept him homebound for six weeks, had Bass
experienced such an affliction.
started in 1848 with a morning stiffness of the joints
that Jonathan Bass easily shook off and then finally hit
on July 22 when he was strolling down High Street in
Lockport and "suddenly the ball of his right foot felt
as though some sharp instrument was penetrating it to
the bone." He took off his boot, yet failed to find the
peg or nail that could have caused the pain. He limped
home and the pain turned to a burning
He couldn't even stand up the next day and
the pain spread to his knees. He was treated again for
rheumatism. He was seen by a number of physicians, but,
what became defined as Bass's unknown "malady" continued
until fall 1848 when he could finally only walk with a
cane or crutches.
He saw hundreds of doctors between 1848 and
1853 and sought various treatments at Avon Springs,
Oneida, and Waterville, New York. Struggling with his
spreading paralysis, Bass attended college in
Waterville, and held various jobs around Buffalo
including managing a canal barn for horses, clerical
work for a canal contractor, laying sidewalk, and
Bass was also a voracious reader whose level
of intelligence seemed to increase, according to the
booklet: "...what his body lost in strength, his mind
had gained." He was also described in a newspaper as a
continued to see many doctors. In addition to prescribed
medicines, Bass received "galvanic treatments," but
nothing slowed the ossification. The International
Journal of Surgery featured Bass, explaining his
condition, and proclaimed, "He boasts the best of
health, and, though on his back all the time, eats and
sleeps well." Dr. J.M. Reed of New York City examined
Bass and called him "a living wonder," while Dr. D.F.
Smith of Plymouth, Pennsylvania said Bass was "the
greatest freak of nature I ever saw."
Dr. A.H. Solial
of Paris also examined Bass and said he was "by far, the
most extraordinary" case he had ever seen in America or
Europe. The textbook Anomalies and Curiosities of
Medicine said Bass was "quite intelligent and
cheerful in spite of his complete ankylosis."
Finally unable to work and support himself,
Bass went to live with his mother, Fannie, in Cambria in
1853. Fannie Richardson Bass was a "good woman, noted
for her amiability" and "tenderness."
Bass was receiving and taking so much
prescription medication from doctors in these years that
the druggists who sent the parcels from New York City
assumed he was an apothecary retailer and they labeled
the boxes "J.R. Bass, Druggist, Lockport, NY."
the winter of 1856-57, the ossification completed its
sluggish journey through Bass's body and he was unable
to move, except for a few facial muscles. His jaws were
nearly locked and a few teeth were extracted so he could
be fed. Bass could still use his other facial muscles.
He could speak and be understood. He loved lots of
"fresh air," was rarely ill, had a strong appetite and
his digestive process was said to function as any
That spring a Lockport carpenter named
Phillip Murphy gave Bass a special bed that was
comfortable and could be transported. He made use of the
bed for the rest of his life. Cataracts caused total
blindness to Bass in 1869 but relatives, friends and
attendants attempted to satisfy his need for literature
and newspapers by reading to him regularly.
further development that baffled doctors, Bass's fingers
and toes became "de-ossified," meaning that the bones
gradually disappeared inside, but his finger nails
continued to grow, spiraling to several inches. As his
muscles withered, he weighed between 100 and 65
Fannie Richardson Bass cared for her
paralyzed son for nearly nineteen years. She died in
1872, leaving the farm to Bass. The ossified man
continually received requests from the medical
community, from scientists, and lucrative promises from
showmen to go on tour to display himself to an
interested public. But Bass declined all such
Bass sold the farm and lived for fifteen
years with his brother, Foster, Foster's wife Eliza
Hoover Bass and their three children. Foster was a quiet
fanner who kept extensive diaries of his labors, the
weather, and financial dealings. He seldom wrote of his
relations with his wife or the difficult time he must
have had with an increasingly needy Jonathan in the
Foster appointed daughter Rose Bass, "a
gentle, self-effacing girl" to labor only "in the scared
work of mitigating the distress of her unfortunate
uncle's condition," according to the autobiographical
Foster died in 1887 and Bass, "being in need of
money," decided to accept some of the invitations to go
on exhibition. With assistance, he toured the country on
his bed. A newspaper report from that year said, "by
placing one hand under Bass's head (an attendant) raises
him directly to his feet as one would stand a stick of
wood on end."
His first exhibitions as a "Living
Wonder of the Age, the Ossified or Bone Man," were at a
building on Canal Street in Niagara Falls. Managed at
various times by his brothers and by show man Fred Latta
and W.L. Fellows, Bass toured the United States and made
headlines in many cities. The Scranton, Pennsylvania
Times said in August 1888 that Bass "has been
surprisingly successful ... and has made many friends
and business relations."
Clarence O. Lewis, the late Niagara County
Historian, recalled in a 1965 column that, when he was a
child, he saw Bass exhibited in Lockport when the Barnum
& Bailey Circus toured the area. Biographies of
Barnum, who hired thousands of "freaks" and curiosities,
do not mention Bass, but his notoriety became so
widespread that Bass was even called on to comment on
news, political and social events of the
A reporter asked Bass what he thought of
Bass replied that he believed Cleveland "has
nearly as stiff a backbone as I have.'" Bass even had a
poem prepared about the celebrated president from
Buffalo. "I'm very much like Cleveland/Although that's
not my name/We've both backbones with wills of our
own/And we'll get there just the same."
Bass toured New York City, Denver, Toronto
and other cities in solo shows, side shows, and dime
museums. Reports have claimed that he was paid $25 to
$250 per week during tours. In the spring of 1890, Bass
reportedly went on strike over a wage dispute, broke his
contract with Fred Latta, and decided to replace Latta
with his trusted younger brother, Seth
The Death of
the Ossified Man
After just five years of touring, Bass became ill
in New York. He caught a cold in early September 1892
during a show at Huber's 14th Street Museum.
The locale of Bass's last show became a significant
footnote in show business history because it was also
one of the first places that Harry Houdini performed.
Sometimes called Huber's Fourteenth Street Museum, was
located at 106-108 East 14th Street in Greenwich
Village, New York City.
Huber's often featured
performing monkeys and Unthan, the "armless wonder" who
played piano with his toes. Houdini performed at Huber's
before enjoying widespread acclaim as an escape artist.
Bass's cold developed into fever, stomach trouble and
A report said that Bass, 62, knew the
end was near and "he begged his brother to return him
home to die."
The Basses made it back to Lewiston by train
on September 11 and the famous ossified man died two
days later. The Bass family informed the newspapers that requests from doctors and
others to ' examine the body and perform an
autopsy were refused. To prevent a ^ threatened
theft of the body, Bass was entombed in a burglar-proof
vault at Glenwood Cemetery in Lockport. Bass's
assets and properties were left to his nieces and
nephews. A relative named Robert "Buck" Snell recalled
that Bass's casket that was solid cement because the
performer "didn't want anyone digging up his grave to
Nancy Snell said that, "Interestingly,
cases of ossification still exist." She has collected
newspaper stories in which doctors have attributed the
affliction to an injury or strain causing a blood clot
that transforms a joint into a ''bone" or solid matter.
Surgery has been recommended.
But cases vary.
The Associated Press offered a report of an
11-year-old girl in Portland. An energetic and
intelligent youth, Robin Newton's body was mysteriously
half paralyzed by ossification. Professor Kent Vincent
of Oregon Health Sciences University said there are
about 200 cases and the disease is not
Gould, George M. and Walter L. Pyle. Anomalies
and Curiosities of Medicine.
History of the Life of Jonathan R. Bass.
(Privately Published) Lewiston, NY: JR Bass,
"Jonathan Bass, Ossified Man Lived in
Lockport." Clarence O. Lewis, Union-Sun &
Journal, September 10, 1959.
"Rare Malady Turned Man's Body to Bone."
Union-Sun & Journal, July 17,
"Jonathan R. Bass, The Ossified Man." The
Buffalo News, August 30, 1998.
"The Ossified Man Dies at His Old Lewiston
Home." Niagara Falls Journal, September 17,
"The Ossified Man's Will." The Daily
Cataract, September 29, 1892.
"Won't Steal Bass: The Remains of the
Ossified Man Sealed Up in Iron Vault." The Daily
Cataract, September 30, 1892.
"The Ossified Man in Scranton." The
Suspension Bridge Journal, Septembers,
"An Ossified Man." Niagara Falls Gazette,
February 2, 1887.
Note: The author wishes to thank Dan Kane,
David Ulrich and George Muscato for their generous
support over the years. Niagara historians Melissa
Dunlap, Vernette Genter, and David Dickinson, and Nancy
Snell and her family provided valuable assistance to the
author. The author also wishes to thank the Lockport
Public Library, Niagara County Historical Society,
Cambria Historical Society, Niagara Falls Public Library
and Niagara Falls Historical
Lockport native Brandon M. Stickney, a former
reporter for the Union-Sun & Journal, has
written biographies of Timothy McVeigh, Paul Kurtz, and
the Seven Sutherland Sisters. He also edited and
contributed to It Has Been a Grand Experience, an
autobiography by Dan Kane. Stickney has appeared on
A&E Biography, the History Channel and National
Public Radio. Stickney's work has appeared in many
publications including USA Today, The Buffalo News,
and the Ontario Review. He is available at firstname.lastname@example.org