Arthur Roadhouse: The Boy With No Legs Who Rode Like the Wind

The paragraph above, from an August 22, 1895 story in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Missouri, certainly got my attention. How about you? I had to find out more about a 508-pound bike rider, and the cyclist with one arm and no legs. How the heck did Arthur turn the pedals without legs? Could this story be true?

I dug around and discovered several more newspaper stories about Baby Bliss and Arthur Roadhouse. Some of it was inspiring (Arthur), some of it sad and tragic (the Baby), as is so often the case. Here’s Arthur’s story first, to be followed in my next post with the story of Baby Bliss (the link to his story is also at the bottom), who was incredibly famous from coast to coast and caused quite a sensation whenever and wherever he made an appearance.

Here is the greatest of all bicycle freaks Champaign Daily News, Illinois, October 28, 1895

This rather insensitive and insulting first sentence introduced the world to young Arthur Roadhouse, who was 12, or maybe 13. It was a syndicated story that ran in scores of newspapers across the country, followed by a second syndicated story that ran in many more papers in 1896. Everyone loves a story about a brave boy overcoming adversity.

But, what about poor Arthur? What do you think went through his mind when he read in the newspaper that he was a some sort of freak? That must have been crushing. And reminded me of one of the most important lessons I learned early in my newspaper career: Always remember, lots of people will read what you write, including the victims of crimes and/or the family members of the victims of crimes and even murders. Be sensitive to their feelings. Be careful with your words.

Arthur was born missing his right arm, and with legs that ended just above where his knees would have been. This distinction is important, and is what ultimately made it possible for Arthur to ride a specially designed bicycle.

According to the newspaper story, Arthur was determined to do what all the other boys in the neighborhood did and “he has learned to sew on buttons, whittle, saw, drive nails and do many other useful things, besides being able to play ball, climb trees and otherwise enjoy himself as boys of his age generally do.”

The bicycling craze was in full bloom by the early 1890s, and watching all the other boys (and some girls) ride bikes made him feel “more hopeless and helpless than ever.” It just didn’t seem possible, despite his determined nature, that Arthur would ever be able to turn the pedals and ride a bicycle. It just wasn’t fair. And then, “a neighboring bicycle manufacturer agreed to make a wheel which the boy could ride, and he did so.”

According to the Chicago Tribune, September 22, 1895 … “His one hand guides the handle bar and bars of steel lead up from the pedals to the short stumps which he has known as legs. Strange to say, he experienced very little trouble in balancing the machine … after three or four hours’ instruction and practice he made half a mile on a track in less than three minutes. He can now do a mile in less than five minutes, and expects to reduce this time to four minutes … He has learned to dismount, and can handle his wheel rapidly and without assistance. He has to be assisted, though, when he mounts, but he expects to soon to be able to do this lone. No boy of his age in town can give Arthur much of a start in a mile race, and most of them have to play second fiddle.”

At the end of the first syndicated story about Arthur was this paragraph: “De Kalb seems to have more than her share of bicycle riding cripples. A year ago one of the young women of the town had a leg taken off by the cars [most likely the trolley cars]. She now rides a bicycle very credibly, it is said.”

I find i a bit odd, as a “modern” newspaper reporter, that neither of the reporters who wrote these stories interviewed and quoted Arthur, or explained how he got around when he wasn’t on his bicycle. Prosthetics?

And so, after the flurry of stories about Arthur in 1895 and 1896 that ran in newspapers from coast to coast … nothing. He disappeared from the newspapers. Except for this one sentence in the December 16, 1897 edition of the Sterling Standard, Illinois: “Arthur Roadhouse, of Room 9, is on the sick list.” It must have been a slow news day.

I hope Arthur lived a long and happy life, filled with lots of happy bike rides.

Here’s the link for Part 2: Baby Bliss: The World’s Largest Cyclist. Here’s a photo of the big man on a bike …

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