I came to own this very unusual photograph when I purchased a family album in a shop near Pioneer, Ohio. With the photo secured in the album, I couldn’t see the text imprinted on the bottom of the card, and my mind went wild with ideas about why this man’s head would be in such a contraption. Once at home, I carefully pulled the photo out of its page and that’s when I came to know Barney Baldwin, the Broken Neck Wonder.
Barney’s story is explained in the following article printed in the St. Paul Globe, St. Paul, Minnesota, December 15, 1887.
Now, whether Barney’s tale is truth or fiction, I’ll let you be the judge. I like to think that it’s a little of both. There is evidence that Barney worked in a railroad yard in 1883 and in several articles it mentions that people witnessed scars on his legs and arms. Possibly he did meet with an unfortunate accident of some sort.
Barney was born Francis J. Mattler, Jr., in 1859, in Lafayette, Indiana, the son of Francis Joseph and Margary (nee Mcburney) Mattler. His parents divorced when he was ten years old. His father was born in France and was a well-known attorney in Lafayette and Indianapolis. Being well-known may sound like a positive thing, but in his father’s case, it was not. He was often in the news in regards to arguments with judges and client complaints. But, it was his personal life that made the largest headlines.
In 1873, his father’s affair, with an 18-year-old girl who was living in his home as a servant, made for salacious gossip around town after there was a physical altercation. His mistress was arrested on charges of assault and battery against his wife, and Francis acted as his mistresses’ attorney in the case! His wife divorced him, he married his mistress, and things went from bad to worse.
Indianapolis Sentinel, Indianapolis, Indiana
November 21, 1873
His father was disbarred from practicing law in April 1874 and in May of 1875 was pronounced insane with mania and removed to the State Hospital, although he was back on the streets in June and soon after went on to practice law again.
Indianapolis News, Indianapolis, Indiana
May 31, 1875
Frank’s mother died of cancer in 1880, and he and his brother, Stephen, lived briefly with their sister, Emma and her husband, George Wienhardt. Curiously, during this time it was noted on census records that he was suffering from Scrofula, a tuberculous infection of the lymph nodes in the neck. It makes me wonder if this illness had anything to do with Frank’s eventual broken neck story.
Frank and Stephen headed west together, and while in Montana he worked for Cole’s circus. Did his exposure to the people of the circus freak show play into his decision to later become a freak himself? In September 1884, he was arrested for swindling a circus customer out of $55, using a change making scam. He jumped bail and went on the run, but was captured a year later and sentenced to one year in prison.
Butte Daily Miner, Butte, Montana
October 9, 1885
As far as what became of Stephen, also known as “The Arizona Kid”, he was convicted of murder at Deer Lodge, Montana in August 1890 and sentenced to life in prison, although he was pardoned in 1899.
In October 1887, Frank began his life as Barney Baldwin, the Broken Neck Wonder, debuting in New Orleans, Louisiana at Robinson’s Museum, and thus began his life as a dime museum freak. He traveled the country, and into Canada. Some sources even reported that he toured Europe. His appearances at the Dime Museums included, but are not limited to, the following:
Epstean’s New Dime Museum in Chicago, Illinois
Sackett & Wiggins’ Eden Musee in St. Paul, Minnesota
Ninth and Arch Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Worth’s Palace Museum, New York, New York
Robinson’s New Musee, Toronto, Canada
Worth and Huber’s Palace Museum , New York, New York
Doris’ Harlem Museum, New York
World’s Museum Theater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Moore’s Musee, Toronto, Canada
Geary’s World’s Museum, Fort Wayne, Indiana
Wonderland Musee in Grand Rapids, Michigan
Saint Paul Globe, Saint Paul, Minnesota
December 18, 1887
In 1893, a physician, George F. Shrady, M.D., published a report in the Medical Record, Vol. 44, and shared that he investigated the dime museum case of “the man with the broken neck,” Barney Baldwin, and that he found a large, heavy, middle-aged man, with his head in a cage, which had a brace attachment. Barney refused to allow the doctor to touch his neck at all. Even offering Barney money if he would be examined, Barney refused. Dr. Shrady then wrote to physicians in Birmingham, Alabama, where the accident occurred, some of whom have been there all their lives, yet none had any knowledge of Barney.
Chicago Daily Tribune, Chicago, Illinois
November 20, 1887
As someone who was known throughout the world as the luckiest man to be alive, when it came to family and matters of the heart, it seemed Barney wasn’t very lucky at all.
In an early newspaper article it was mentioned that Barney’s wife traveled with him and described her as “an attentive little lady, with Minnie Maddern hair.” According to Barney, his wife’s attentions turned towards someone else in 1891. While he was exhibiting with the Washburn & Arlington Circus, his wife took off with Jack Griffin, also known as Circus Jack. Barney traveled to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in search of his wife and children and while there became so despondent that he attempted suicide by poison.
The Sun, New York, New York
September 29, 1891
Still brooding over the actions of his run-away wife, Barney again attempted suicide in October while he was jailed in Des Moines, Iowa, due to delirium and tremors. He first butted his head against a wall and then, after arming himself with a revolver he grabbed from an officer’s pocket, attempted to shoot himself.
Barney had been at the lowest of lows, but in November of 1891, he met a young Phoebe Juneau, aged 23, fell in love and married once again. The couple met at the Wonderland Musee in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I think the author of the following newspaper article aspired to write romance novels.
Defiance County Republican, Defiance, Ohio
Nov 19, 1891
That summer, Barney invited his wife and her parents to come live with him in New York, however when they arrived, they found that there was no home in which to live. When interviewed about the couples’ split, Phoebe said that Barney was “pretty frisky” and would often “overload” on whiskey and this made him difficult to live with. She and Barney had two children, an infant that died in September 1892 and a daughter, Florence Eddie Baldwin, born June 13, 1893 in Grand Rapids, Michigan who Phoebe put up for adoption.
Barney took another wife, Minnie Idellia Siniff, who was 18 years younger than he and while living in Texas they had a son, Frank Mattler Jr. I wonder if Minnie knew of her husband’s true identity all along or if she learned of it later. In 1906, now residing in San Bernardino, California, Barney traveled to Arizona for work and ended up hospitalized. He was suffering from tuberculosis and was not expected to live. It was then that he received word that his wife had run off to marry Kirby Willett, a railroad man.
Albuquerque Citizen, Albuquerque, New Mexico
December 5, 1906
By now, you may have wondered how it is that I came to know Barney Baldwin and Frank Mattler were one in the same. It was upon the discovery of this next newspaper article that I realized if I wanted to know about where Barney’s life had begun, I needed to search for Frank.
The Indianapolis News, Indianapolis, Indiana
November 13, 1906
Researching Emma Mattler Weinhart in the Indianapolis area was where I struck gold. Of course, there were many brick walls along the way, and there are more brick walls that I’d like to break through, like who was Barney’s wife who ran off with Circus Jack? I may just have to come back with an update in the future. But, back to the story.
Luckily for Barney, he made an unexpected recovery. With the dime museum gigs drying up, Barney turned to selling patent medicines in the street. He traveled frequently, stopping often in New Mexico, Oklahoma and Kansas. While visiting Muskogee, Oklahoma, in November, 1910, Barney met a cigar shop saleslady, Ethel Dobbs, and the two married in Denison, Texas. Another short-lived marriage for Barney, Ethel split just days later.
El Reno Daily American, El Reno, Oklahoma
November 14, 1910
Barney, ever the ladies’ man, married again, and again it ended in heartbreak when his wife, Mrs. Helen Baldwin, daughter of Frederick H. Stevens, of Memphis, Tennessee, died in May, 1912 in Hugo, Oklahoma. And Barney wouldn’t be very far behind.
The Hugo Husonian, Hugo, Oklahoma
May 16, 1912
Not even twelve months later, Barney’s very full life ended when he took a fall down stairs at a South Broadway resort in Shawnee, Kansas on April 9, 1913. It was reported that the cause of death was a broken back!
Muskogee Times, Muskogee, Oklahoma
April 10, 1913
Shawnee Daily News-Herald, Shawnee, Oklahoma
April 26, 1913
Barney’s body went unclaimed in a Shawnee morgue until it was finally laid to rest in an unmarked grave in late May. It wasn’t until late June that the Shawnee postmaster received a letter telling of Barney’s true identity.
Shawnee Daily News Herald, Shawnee, Oklahoma
June 26, 1913
Newspapers reported “Everybody seemed to know him, but nobody knows anything about him or his relatives.”
Various newspaper articles
Medical Record, Vol. 44, A Weekly Journal of Medicine and Surgery, edited by George F. Shrady, A.M., M.D., published 1893