The Fabulous Fat Men

“The ponderous gentlemen of the Fat Men’s Association, for various and weighty reasons, held their first annual ball on the evening of Monday, December 20 at Irving Hall…” The Association’s leadership had begun planning for the gala affair in November, 1869, and the goal was to create a spectacle and sell tickets so that members of the public would watch the Fat Men cavort around a dance hall. The funds raised would go towards offsetting the cost of the Fat Men’s annual picnic in Connecticut.

Initially, they planned  to have each member of the Association appear in matching blue jackets and brass buttons, but the membership felt formal dress more appropriate, and the men appeared clad in swallow-tailed coats and top hats. Their guest of honor was seven-year-old Thomas Conway, all 80 and ½ pounds of him.

Before the dancing began, the Fat Men hunkered down for a good meal; above them the public looked downward, making bets on how much each man would eat. At 11:30, dancing began. Garfule’s Bank had been hired especially for the affair, and Garfule himself composed “The Fat Men’s March.” The President of the Association, John A.P. Fiske (358 lbs.) led the members and their wives to the dance floor, and then put on a spending display of terpsichorean skill; he’d spent the last two months honing his dancing skills with lessons.

The Fat Men’s dancing partners were, for the most part, slim, being outweighed by their larger companions. A few exceptions existed, for “there were enough heavy weights, however, among the fair sex to vindicate the theory of women’s rights and prove that women can compete with men, even in fatness, if they so choose.”

The New York Fat Men’s Association was but an offshoot of the Fat Men’s Association, headquartered in Connecticut. The brainchild of Sidney Smith, he started the Association in 1869 as a means of raising funds for a hotel proprietor in desperate need of business. To drum up business, Smith hit upon the idea of a Fat Men’s Clambake; which proved a rousing success. For the next Clambake, invitations to the clam bake were sent to fat men in New York City and Brooklyn, and it was to offset the cost of a steamer and food that the Fat Men’s Ball was held.

Each and every year thereafter, the New York members of the Fat Men’s Association would journey to Connecticut via steamer, usually accompanied by the jeers of young children concerned about the ability of the gangplank to bear so much weight. On the trip out, the members enjoyed copious amounts of lager beer, danced, and sang; “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” being the most popular. Arriving at the dock in Bridgeport, they were greeted by their Connecticut brethren, and the combined group repaired to the bar, where six bartenders stood ready to serve them and bushels of raw clams stood close at hand.

The smell of the steaming clams was already wafting through the air, prepared by Clark Weston, a black cook much in demand.

Before  dinner, each member was required to be weighed, as no man was permitted in the Association unless he topped 200 lbs.

Finally, at 2 PM, the Fat Men were permitted to eat, which they did for the next two hours. At one 1876 clambake, the attendees devoured 65 bushels of round clams, 17 bushels of long clams, 35 bushels of oysters, 4 barrels of lobsters, 2 barrels of bluefish, 4 barrels of sweet potatoes, 8 barrels of Irish potatoes, 83 chickens, 42 ducks, and in excess of 1000 ears of corn.

The two hours allotted for dinner having been completed, the election for President was then held. The most weight was given to the President’s size, with Willard Perkins (392 lbs) gaining office in successive years. At 6PM, after awarding the President as his badge of office a special chair custom designed to support immense weight, the revelers departed.

Most reporters present each enjoyed the revelery in the spirit in which it was mean, but there was always one or two who viewed the subject with disgust. A New York paper headlined its story on the 1876 picnic “An Atrocity in the Flesh;”

…these valiant trenchermen, with their aggregate tons of adipose, were fat brained, fat witted gross men. They enjoyed life in their way, and wanted their way of enjoying it heralded to the world…There is one thing to be said in favor of the fat men. They are so nearly related to the oyster in activity of mind that they never do much hurt. Whoever saw a fat man of four hundred pounds arraigned on any criminal offense? Whoever knew a fat man at the bottom of any conspiracy? It was Cassius who had the lean and hungry look, and was therefore to be feared as one who could hatch conspiracies….

            With the lone exception of the grouchy reporter man (and perhaps the clams, lobster and chickens), everyone else seemed to enjoy themselves capitally. Although the Fat Men’s Association petered out in Connecticut after Willard Perkins’ death on April 27, 1889, other offshoots of the Fat Men’s Association continued on until the turn of the century. The New Jersey Branch was headed by Eurastus H. Lewis, who upon his death in 1901 was carried to the cemetery by six members of the club in a specially made coffin. The Ohio branch held its clambake at Put-In-Bay, and the St. Louis Fat Men’s Association conducted dances in Uhrig’s cave. The Texas Association’s outlasted most; membership fee was 1 cent per pound, payable at the annual gathering in Galveston.

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  1. Know anything about the Massachusetts branch? I am hoping to find a photo of my ancestor who was a member Frank M. Shipman:

    • Sorry for the belated reply. Unfortunately I don’t have anything on the Mass. branch. Have you checked out Chronicling America?


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