Hector Davis: The Man Without Bones

An example of infantile hypophosphatasia

From bearded women to conjoined twins, mankind has always been fascinated by human abnormalities.  While the traveling freak show may have gone the way of the dodo, we can still marvel at Mother Nature's oddities through historical documents and old newspaper clippings.  Unfortunately, no photographs were ever taken of Hector Davis- perhaps the oddest oddity ever created by Mother Nature- but that does not make his life story any less spectacular.

Known as the "boneless man", Hector Davis never became a sideshow attraction; instead, he lived his life content in the remote mountains of eastern Kentucky.  In 1884, he was "discovered" by a U.S. marshal who had gone to Barbourville to track down whiskey moonshiners, and thus the story of Hector Davis came to light.  Newspapers throughout the world ran the story, with a headline proclaiming:

A strange discovery in the Kentucky mountains- a man who can be flattened like a pancake and rolled up like a carpet!

Below is the story of Hector Davis, whose strange condition, hypophosphatasia, is an extremely rare bone disorder which leads to the loss of all bone mineralization.  While most individuals with this disease die at an early age, Hector Davis was already forty when his story made it in the papers.
From the May 28, 1884 edition of the Cheyenne Transporter:

A correspondent of The Cincinnati Times-Star (probably Joe Mulhatton) writes from Lexington, Ky.:  Yesterday your correspondent was introduced to Isaac Arbuckle, a member of a United States marshal's posse, who has returned from a raid in search of moonshine whisky manufacturers in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. Arbuckle was waiting for a train to take him to his home in Carter county, and, when interrogated, stated that the revenue raid was barren of results, but that he had made a discovery while prowling among the mountains down below Barbourville that he felt sure would be of interest to newspaper readers.  His story in his own words was as follows:

Two days after leaving Barbourville I spent the night at the cabin of a poor farmer among the hills, and during a social family conversation, in which I participated, after supper, someone incidentally spoke of Hector Davis, "the man without bones".  I immediately asked what was meant by the expression, when my host explained that Hector Davis was one of their "neighbors" living some three miles further on among the mountains, and that he actually had not a bone in his body. As I expressed some skepticism, he volunteered to show me over to Hector's the next morning. We knocked at the door of the Davis cabin about 9 o'clock next day, and the first thing that struck my attention upon entering was a middleaged man sitting bolt upright and supported by a rude and peculiarly-shaped frame-work.

He was introduced to me as Hector Davis. I at once entered into conversation with him, and discovered him to be a man of fair intelligence, and eager to tell all about himself, in a voice that was as strong as my own. I grasped his hand upon first entering, but his fingers all rolled up together like a cabbage leaf in a mushy sort of way that made me glad to let go of them.  Taking hold of his limbs they yielded to the pressure until they were flattened out to twice their proper width. The only indication of bone was in his skull, which, while pliable almost as shoe leather, still afforded a kind of protection to the poor fellow's brain.

His neck was limber as a dish-cloth, and when his head was released from its support, which was something in the shape of a similar contrivance used in photograph galleries, it rolled helplessly about on his shoulders like a foot-ball. His arms dropped at his side, but with the aid of the muscle he was enabled to partly raise the forearm, although the hand curled over limply, and gave the whole a sort of zigzag shape. He shuffled off his slipper and reqiested me to step on his foot. I did so, and it at once spread itself out until it looked as if a railroad train had passed over it. It slowly resumed its natural shape, but it was fully a half hour before he was able to get the foot into his slipper again.

"Perhaps you would like to tie my leg in a knot?"

I found no difficulty in performing this feat, while my friend accomplished the same with the other leg, and after we had also tied knots in both his arms he presented a very knotty problem, indeed, and one that would have set a professional contortionist crazy.

When we had unraveled all the knots and straightened all his limbs again, he requested us to lift him gently from his frame-work and place him upon the floor. This we found no easy task, for his body slipped, and it was only by securing a firm grip upon his clothing that we managed to keep him from falling. We finally succeeded in straightening him out upon the floor, and then my friend, who seemed to thoroughly understand the boneless man's programme, seized a barrel standing near, and which I afterward learned contained turnips, and swiftly upending it at once proceeded to roll it over the prostrate Davis, from his toes up to his chin and again to his toes.

A contortionist, circa 1880

The only manifestation of pain he made was when the barrel passed over his heart and lungs, but it left him in a horrible shape. I can only describe it by comparing it to that of a man made of mud, and then thrown up and flattened against a wall. But I had no time to contemplate his flatness, as he almost immediately called to us in a rather weak voice to "roll him up". This we proceeded to do by doubling his head over his chest and then continuing to "roll him up" as you would a carpet, until we came to his feet, and he formed a perfect cylinder about as large as a half-barrel. A voice feebly piped from the center of the cylinder for us to unroll him, and we soon had him once more spread out over the floor.

While his body was resuming its former shape, I learned from his old, spectacled mother, who had sat during all these proceedings knitting in her rocking chair, that Hector, who was 40 years old, had always enjoyed excellent health, and provided well for her until the beginning of his peculiar affliction two years ago. He first observed a softening of the bones of the toes, and this rapidly spread to all parts of his anatomy, although, beyond making him helpless, he never experienced any inconvenience from it. All his vital organs performed their functions properly, and she believed he would live to a good old age. She had a younger son, then in the field at work, who assisted her in handling him, and altogether they got along quite comfortably. She did not know what the doctors might think of Hector, as she "had not seen a doctor in them thar hills for nigh onto twenty year". After my friend and I had replaced the boneless man in his frame-work we bade him good-by and came away.

(the original newspaper article can be viewed here)