This photo of Jonathan R. Bass, who was exhibited under the name "The Ossified Man," was taken by Niagara Falls photographers Hendrickson and Zahner and copyrighted in 1887.
"Ossified" means "turned to bone." Although a pamphlet and thousands of words were written about Bass's unusual condition, in which every joint in his body stiffened, it is not clear whether his soft tissues hardened as well.
Bass was born Nov. 25, 1830, in the Town of Cambria, the oldest of three sons of William Bass and Fannie Richardson. Bass was described as a strong, robust youth.
At age 7, Bass had what was called "a slight attack of rheumatism." When he was 9, rheumatism appeared in his hip, and he could not move for three days, he later told an interviewer.
At the age of 16, he worked shipping lumber on the canal in Lockport, and there was speculation later that being in the water may have aggravated his condition. On July 22, 1848, while walking along High Street in Lockport, Bass felt a sudden sharp pain in his foot. The next morning, both feet were painful. The third day, he could not stand. He was confined to his room for three months.
He was treated for rheumatism, with no success, but was able to walk with the aid of a crutch and cane. During the summer of 1850, he operated a stable for canal horses and mules on Mechanic Street in Buffalo, and did clerical work for a canal shipper. As his condition worsened, he gave up manual labor and worked as a bookkeeper for a hardware store.
His body gradually ossified, mystifying his doctors. In 1853, he returned to Cambria to live with his mother, and in 1857, he was confined to his bed.
A Lockport cabinet maker, Philip Murphy, built a special bed for Bass, and he never left it again.
Around 1869, Bass, who had been an avid reader, lost his sight due to cataracts. He continued his keen interest in current events, having newspapers read to him.
After his mother died in 1872, Bass lived with a brother in Niagara Falls and continued to attract the attention of the medical community. He was visited by hundreds of medical men, who all agreed that his case was unique.
After his brother's death, Bass had no means of supporting himself except allowing himself to be exhibited. He went on the road in 1887.
An article published in Niagara Falls on Feb. 2, 1887, headlined: "An Ossified Man: For 30 Years Unable to Move a Single Joint, Yet Retaining His Mind and Full Power of Speech," said, "For many years Mr. Bass has been solicited to place himself on exhibition as a curiosity but has always declined. Thirty years a dependent, with prospects of many more, has led him to feel the need of doing something to aid his finance, and for that reason he has settled here, and will remain for a season, where many who have expressed a wish to see him will contribute a small sum for so doing."
The article described Bass: "His general appearance while lying in bed does not indicate his condition. His features are somewhat sunken, but otherwise present the appearance of health. The body is of course emaciated, while the hands, which lie across the body, are somewhat deformed. Every joint is perfectly rigid, and the attendant by placing one hand under Mr. Bass' head raises him directly to his feet as one would a stand a stick of wood on end. Mr. Bass does not suffer pain, although by no means devoid of feeling. He possesses a good appetite, eats, drinks and sleeps like other mortals, and physicians say they can see no reason why he will not die of old age."
He was first shown in Niagara Falls, then at the annual fair in Toronto. In 1881, Fred Latta of Lockport became his manager. For the next two years, he exhibited Bass all over the country, and one-sentence notations such as, "Jonathan Bass, the ossified man, has been on exhibition in Lockport this week with success," continued to appear in Niagara Falls newspapers.
In March of 1890, under the headline, "Our Showman," the Suspension Bridge Journal reported that Bass "got a swelled head" and attempted to break his contract with Latta so he and Seth Bass could "go it alone."
In April of 1890, Bass was reported to be on strike, dissatisfied with his salary of $25 per week. He was in Denver, "earning nothing," while his manager was seeing an attorney and "arranging for the exhibition of his quartette babies," a newspaper reported.
By September 1892, he was being managed by his brother, W.B. Bass. While on exhibit at Huber's 14th Street Museum in New York City, the Ossified Man caught a cold, which developed into "internal fever, pneumonia and stomach trouble." He begged his brother to return him home to die, and the two took a train to Lewiston on Sept. 11.
On Sept. 13, Bass died. His obituary said his disease had left him "a vital and unimpaired organism living in a shell of stone." He weighed only 65 pounds.
Although the Daily Cataract reported that "Physicians have besieged the relatives of the deceased for permission to make an autopsy and even offered large sums for the privilege of examining the body, all such requests have been refused." Bass was entombed in a "burglar-proof vault composed wholly of iron," in Lockport's Glenwood Cemetery, the paper reported, and "a watch will be kept on the grave to keep away any grave robbers who may be paid to secure the body."