I stumbled across this paragraph in St. Louis Globe-Democrat, from the August 22, 1895 issue …
After reading it, I just had to find out more about the 508-pound Baby Bliss (here’s the link to my story) and Arthur Roadhouse.
“Here is the greatest of all bicycle freaks …”
This was the first line in an October 28, 1895 story in the Champaign (Illinois) Daily News about young Arthur, who was 12 or 13 and a local kid. It was a syndicated story that ran in scores of newspapers across the country, followed by at least one other syndicated story about Arthur in 1896. And yes, “the greatest of all freaks” is a rather cruel headline. I can imagine poor, little Arthur cringing and maybe even shedding a tear or two to after reading these harsh words.
Arthur was born missing his right arm, and with legs that extended down to just above where his knees would have been. This distinction is important, and it’s what made it possible for Arthur to later learn how to ride a specially designed bicycle and turn the pedals.
Growing up, the determined boy “being naturally of a very industrious turn, 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 mid 1890s, as the safety bicycle had replaced the high-wheeled ordinary and everyone, it seemed, was crazy about the wheel. They were everywhere. Watching the neighborhood boys ride “left [Arthur] in body more hopeless and helpless than ever.” But, it just didn’t seem possible, despite his industrious and determined nature, that little Arthur would ever be able to ride a bicycle. 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 article about Arthur was an interesting 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 [trolley] cars. She now rides a bicycle very credibly, it is said.”
Bicycles helped level the playing field and provided opportunities for fun, adventure and exercise for a wide range of people with disabilities back then, an age when having a disability often meant limited opportunities. And it was a new opportunity for women, who took to the wheel in droves. I found stories about blind cyclists, and stories about how cycling was recommended as part of the treatment for those suffering with mental disorders. Riding the wheel was therapeutic in so many ways for so many people.
After the flurry of stories about Arthur in 1895 and 1896 … silence. 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 really slow news day for this to make the paper. Then again, Arthur was a bit of a local celebrity.
And then, more than 40 years later, another mention of Arthur: He attended the October 5, 1940 wedding of his nephew, John B. Roadhouse, who married Barbara Shepard in Granville, Ohio. Arthur attended the wedding alone, according to the story.
Arthur died on December 27, 1940, at the age of 55. I hope he had a happy life, filled with lots of wonderful bike rides.