The Wondrous Tales Of McDonald, Wolfskill And Whitton

Back in September of 2015, the fabulous Allison Manley and I decided to try something a little different and join forces for a special six-part podcast series called Axels In The Attic. One of the incredible stories we explored was the career of Norman A. Falkner, a Saskatchewan skater who achieved more success with one leg than he ever did with two. Today, we will meet three incredible men who skated... with not one but two artificial legs!


Mamaroneck resident James McDonald was something of a phenomenon in Westchester County, New York during the Victorian era. After having both legs amputated below the knees, he learned to 'fancy' skate on crude rubber prosthetic legs fashioned by the A.A. Marks Company. In a December 20, 1887 letter penned to Marks published in the 1894 book "A treatise on Marks' patent artificial limbs with rubber hands and feet", James wrote, "Over twelve years ago I met with the misfortune of having both my legs crushed by the railroad cars, which necessitated amputation below the knees. I was then a mere lad, and did not fully realize the gravity of my misfortune. By the advice of my surgeons and my many advisers, I placed myself under your care for restoration. Your reputation as the one most competent in the land had so impressed me that, from the first, I felt that I was soon to realize the most that skill and ingenuity could possibly do for me. In this I have not been disappointed, for your labours have restored me to my feet, and I am, for all practical purposes, myself again. I well remember how proud I was when your genius placed me in a position in which I could indulge in youthful sports, how I availed myself of every advantage, playing ball, boating, fishing, and hunting in summer, and skating in winter. I even went so far as to swing my partner, on several occasions, in rural dances. I became quite an expert on the skates, and relished the applause my antics on the ice would excite. I have always felt that your artificial legs were wonders, and ought to be known throughout the land... I shall be only too happy to commend your rubber feet, and will do all I can to encourage their sale, believing, as I do, that they are incomparable."


Born in 1882 in Reading, Pennsylvania, Allen Wolfskill was a machinist by trade until he suffered an untimely accident at the Reading Railroad... yes, the same one in the game Monopoly. The March 20, 1904 issue of "The Reading Eagle" reported, "He lost his limbs on the Reading Road near the Poplar Neck bridge 3 years ago last November. He fell under the caboose. He picked himself up and tied up the wounds the best he could with his handkerchief. Then he called for a farmer who was working in a field near by. This man brought him to St. Joseph's Hospital in a spring wagon. Both legs had to be amputated - the left 11 inches below the knee and the right 7 inches below. He displayed great fortitude at the hospital and wanted the physicians to amputate the legs without administering ether. This was impossible, however. After the operation he sat up in bed and in 5 days was wheeling about in an invalid chair. He left the hospital after being there but 4 weeks. The day he secured his artificial limbs he walked from the factory to Philadelphia Terminal and from the Franklin St. depot to his home." Following his accident, Allen briefly operated a cigar store and pool room before taking up a job with the Philadelphia firm who made his artificial limbs. He gave demonstrations on both a bicycle and on roller skates at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition and worked as a travelling salesman for the firm before opening his own thriving business manufacturing artificial limbs. By all accounts a very adept 'fancy' figure skater, he regularly drew crowds of astonished admirers in the early twentieth century at Sweeny's Dam and other popular Reading skating ponds. He married twice, had two children and passed away in 1965.


Photo courtesy "Ice Skate" magazine

Hailing from London, England, Harry Whitton lost a leg at the age of eight due to what was termed in the fifties as infantile paralysis or polio. He learned to skate with one artificial leg just before World War II broke out. In 1948, an ulcer necessitated the amputation of his other leg at the knee. Within a year, he was on the ice at Queen's Ice Club with two prosthetic limbs fashioned out of straps and metal, practicing dances with his instructor Ivy Gale. In his book "This Skating Age", sportswriter Howard Bass raved, "Quite the most remarkable, almost incredible case of surmounting physical handicaps to skate is that of a Londoner, Harry Whitton, who has actually passed a preliminary ice dance test without any feet! Yes, this is literally true. After having below-knee amputations in each leg, Harry miraculously perservered with two artificial limbs and, for this, will forever retain my unceasing admiration." Harry skated well into his fifties and also skied every winter at resorts in Switzerland in Norway. Asked by Bass if he was ever daunted, Whitton replied wryly, "Frightened? Why should I be? I have less to worry about than [others]. If I fall, I have no ankles to break."

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":