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by Alex Hanton
While there's always more that society can do to help the disadvantaged, there's no question we've made enormous strides in how we treat individuals with disabilities. Prior to the 20th century, for example, sufficient mechanisms were not in place to assist people with ... wait, let's not sugar coat this: most people were dicks to them.
But during that time, there were some folks who stepped up, acknowledged their physical limitations and said, "What's that skill that everyone says I can't do? Right, well I'm going to kick all of the ass out of that thing." For instance ...
Arthur Kavanagh: Limbless World Traveler And Expert Horseman
Being born into Irish nobility in the 1800s sounds like a pretty sweet deal. And for Arthur Kavanagh, it was, save for one small problem: he was born without any arms or legs. They weren't completely non-existent, but his arms were only long enough that they met at the middle of his chest.
The benefit of a privileged upbringing saw his parents initially trying to commission some sort of Steampunk Robocop limb solution that turned out to be a little beyond the technical capabilities of the time. Instead, they encouraged Kavanagh to spend his childhood relentlessly training to overcome his disabilities. And man, did it ever pay off.
With the aid of a special saddle, Arthur became as adept as any horseman around. He also used to chop down trees just for fun, because why not, eventually using that lumber to build himself a 130-foot schooner which he used for fishing trips where he would personally pull in over 800 pounds of salmon. If that sounds incredible, a local gal thought the same thing, and after a scandalous affair, his mother shipped him overseas. We're assuming it's because she was overcome with the badassery emanating from the son she had helped raise.
Arthur Kavanagh at age 14, we assume.
While other rich kids were hanging around Italy and France, Kavanagh and his brother made for St. Petersburg, then journeyed down through Russia to Persia. To be clear, this was extremely dangerous terrain, a reality that was reinforced when the brothers discovered the belongings of a couple of recently-murdered British travelers.
It wasn't all guts and glory, though. Arthur did, in fact, have to be carried through narrow mountain passes in a wicker basket, and at one point he spent time being pelted with stones and fruit while caged in a town square. Eventually, though, he found his way to a prince's harem where he was able to recover after being ill for a time.
They finally reached India, where Kavanagh's brother died of fever, as was the fad of the time. That left Arthur alone on a strange continent with no money, because supposedly his mother had cut him off after hearing about the whole harem-recovery thing. "Those hussies!" she probably said, followed by a stern "harrumph."
But he persevered, and ended up taking an insanely dangerous job as a despatch rider, which is kind of like India's version of the Pony Express, and apparently developed a reputation for hunting freaking tigers. He eventually returned to Ireland and became a respected member of Parliament, because c'mon, who wouldn't vote for that guy?
James Holman: The Blind Explorer
James Holman was a famed 19th century explorer who circumnavigated the globe and covered so many miles that he could have traveled to the moon. Maybe even literally, if the 19th century was Final Fantasy IV and he could defeat the monsters en route to his moon ship. And also if he could actually see. Oh yeah, didn't we mention that? Holman found his way around the world while being absolutely blind.
After losing his sight at the age of 25, Holman learned to get around by tapping a metal-tipped cane on the ground and navigating based on the echoes, which is some pretty cool Daredevil stuff in and of itself. Yet despite this remarkable skill, he was no ordinary man with superhuman abilities. This was a guy who was determined to experience as much of the planet as he could, just because, something that was absolutely unheard of at the time. People didn't tend to travel to distant lands without a specific purpose, because that sort of thing was extremely dangerous.
Though if there was a purpose, it would be to share that glorious beard with the world.
And when we say "dangerous" we don't mean "you might have to stay at a Motel 6," despite that being absolutely terrifying. Rather, Holman found himself in situations that might have killed ten weaker men, and maybe even a few lesser Avengers. In one instance, his ship collided with another vessel, and Holman saved the day by seizing the wheel and steering a steady course while the captain barked orders from afar (again, while blind). Another expedition into the Amazon became quite the ordeal after an incompetent guide forgot all of the food. A later trek through the Australian outback saw him and his companions losing their horses and surviving off of scrumptious possum flesh.
On a voyage to Africa, a fever killed 90% of the crew, which likely would have been a surprise to his family, whom he had assured that this whole journey thing would be good for his health. He made it almost all the way across Russia before the Tsar, apparently convinced that he was a spy, sent an officer in an elite military unit to whisk him back to Moscow so quickly that nobody seemed to notice when his toe fell off along the way.
Holman came through it all just fine, though. In fact, his only real failing as a traveler was a tendency to annoy the locals by feeling his way around their valuable antique artwork.
Matthias Buchinger: Magician, Artist, Ladies' Man (With No Hands Or Legs)
Matthias Buchinger was 29 inches tall and had "small, finlike appendages" instead of hands or feet. In 18th century Europe, that should have meant a pretty grim life. And we're talking grim by the standards of the 18th century, when the average person was a dung-coated battleground between various ringworm civilizations. Normally, the absolute best-case scenario for Buchinger would have been dying of pleurisy before he could develop an addiction to drinking mercury. But the German decided to take things in a different direction.
Although his early life is somewhat mysterious, by his early 30s Buchinger was renowned for his insanely detailed engravings, which are typically best appreciated under a magnifying glass, given their detail. He was so famous that noble families would seek him out to make them engraved family trees, and he even produced a portrait of Britain's Queen Anne. Aside from engraving, he put together complicated dioramas inside glass bottles and invented several musical instruments, including a new type of flute that he gave King George I as a gift.
Wait, that is clearly Benjamin Franklin.
He also built a career as a kind of traveling magician, noted for crazy stunts like balancing a glass on top of some bowling pins, then bowling them down without spilling any of the wine. He was also known for making birds appear out of nowhere, trick shooting, and playing a variety of musical instruments. Again, without hands.
Buchinger's skills were so amazing that pamphlets advertising his shows didn’t even bother mentioning his height (which, remember, would have been the selling point at the time). And in his spare time, when he wasn't delighting crowds, he had probably 40 percent of the sex happening in Europe. In England, where he had 14 children, his reputation as a formidable seducer grew to the point that "Buchinger's Boot" became national slang for a lady's nether regions. Yikes.
Baldwin IV: Fought Everybody While Leprosy Slowly Paralyzed Him
Baldwin IV was a 12th century Crusader King of Jerusalem, a job that traditionally involved a lot of stabbing people while on horseback. Unfortunately, he also suffered from lepromatous leprosy, the most debilitating form of the disease. He became king at age 13 and it killed him at 24, but he devoted those eleven years to kicking every ass in the vicinity.
The disease was first detected when he was nine, his tutor having observed him and his friends playing around by digging their fingernails into each others' arms, because childhood was a bleak affair before the invention of video games. According to the tutor, "Baldwin bore the pain altogether too patiently, as if he did not feel it." By the time he took the throne, nobody expected him to live very long or rule with any kind of authority. And that's when Baldwin kicked their pessimism in the face, presumably while laughing maniacally and flipping everyone the bird.
Baldwin IV, playing a rousing game of "Let's Slap Each Other In The Face."
At the age of 16, he led an insane charge against the army of the mighty Saladin, which outnumbered his forces at least six to one. Incredibly, he won, which is pretty impressive when you consider that Baldwin had already lost the use of one arm and could only guide his horse with his knees while he battled his enemies with his good arm.
As his disease progressed, Baldwin continued to personally lead charges against superior forces. At 19, he was knocked from the saddle during a battle and almost died because he couldn't even stand up, much less get back on a horse. Afterward, he wrote sadly to the French king that "to be deprived of the use of ones limbs is of little help to carrying out the work of government."
By the time of his death, Baldwin was blind and semi-paralyzed, and eventually had to give up the whole "leading armies to kickass victories" thing. While the kingdom collapsed almost immediately after his death, at least he was immortalized in the Ridley Scott film, Kingdom of Heaven, honoring his legacy as depicted by actor Edward Norton, the third-best Hulk. Which is cool, we guess.
Blas de Lezo: Half Man, Full Badass
Blas de Lezo joined the Spanish navy as a tween, since 18th century Europe had a level of disregard for child safety that wouldn't be seen again until American coal mines or the invention of YouTube. And even by that standard, Lezo had a rough time of it. When he was 15, an English cannonball took out his left leg. A couple of years after that, he was leading an attack when he lost one of his eyes because errant shrapnel tends to do that sort of thing.
They'd have painted more, but his balls take up another full canvas.
By the age of 25, he had lost an arm as well, which really starts to suggest that he may have accidentally swallowed a magnet or pissed off a witch doctor at some point. Most people would have called it quits at this point and retired to count their remaining limbs. But Lezo stayed in the navy for another 27 years, teetering around on a wooden leg and developing a reputation as the biggest badass in Spain. His awed allies quickly nicknamed him "mediohombre" (half man), while his enemies just nicknamed him "Aaarghhhh!"
Lezo's most legendary feat was the defense of Cartagena against the English Admiral Edward Vernon, the very man who had cost Lezo his leg all those years ago. There's no source saying Lezo stared off into the horizon and muttered, "Revenge is sweeter than the blood we will taste this day," but there's also no source saying he didn't, so we'll just assume that he did.
In fairness, a Spanish victory seemed unlikely, since the English had prepared the biggest amphibious attack until D-Day. They outnumbered the defenders 25,000 to 6,000 and were so confident of their victory that they had already started making medals celebrating their victory.
"We award this medal in honor of -- wait, he what? ... Really?"
But they hadn't counted on Lezo, who personally led the defense, despite the fact that he was almost immediately wounded in his remaining arm, leaving him with one working limb. His plan was to delay the British for as long as possible, in the correct belief that disease would hit his enemies pretty heavily. To this end, the Spanish sank ships to block the harbor and boldly repelled overwhelming assaults. Lezo ultimately won an incredible victory, before dying of his injuries a short time later.