Today’s curious news item comes from the Westport Times (a New Zealand newspaper) about a young woman whose large size caused gasps and shudders when it was discussed at a meeting of the British Association.
The woman was a Miss C Heenan, who, as “The Fat Lady” attracted attention in the kind of freak shows that were highly popular during the Victorian era. At one time she was said to be the heaviest woman in the world, weighing in at 40 stones.
Human curiosities were not a new phenomena. Giants, dwarfs, ultra fat and grotesque people had been a stable part of travelling fairs from the seventeenth century. But in the Victorian era, exhibitions featuring people with disabilities or physical abnormalities became an extremely popular form of entertainment.
Miss Caroline Heenan was of American origin but travelled the world on the strength of having been the winner of a number of trophies for her size. The Dublin Daily Express, reporting in December 1868 that she was holding daily levees at The Rotunda, said they could well believe the stories circulating that vehicles in various parts of the world had broken under her weight.
Earlier that month she had been in London where a handbill advertised the presence in London of “the greatest wonder of the world”. Miss Heenan would be exhibiting for a short time opposite the offices of Punch magazine. Admission was 3 pennies but after 6pm there was a special offer (for working class spectators only) of seeing this phenomena for just tuppence.
She is 26in round the muscle of the arm, 3ft 6in across the shoulder, seven feet around the body!!! Handsome in appearance and not 19 years of age. Heaviest female living, weighting 40 stone.
An indication of what spectators could expect is given in a report of a court hearing in London in March 1873 involving Joseph Kells, the organiser of an exhibition featuring Miss Heenan. Kells alleged the success of his exhibition was materially impacted by the behaviour of the man who owned the shop next door to the location of the exhibition. This shop owner announced to passers by that if they attended the exhibition and touched anything on display they could contract small pox. Potential spectators became alarmed at this and they stopped going in to see the exhibit.
In evidence Kells said he had employed some men to stretch out the dress outside the venue so that potential spectators got a preview of the size of the woman they could go into view.
Mr Willis (counsel for the defence) “Was it not part of the duty of one of the men to eat fire or pretend to eat it and did not the other apparently spoon up and drink lighted paraffin oil?”
Witness: They did not do that at first but they did afterwards (laughter)
In his summing up, the Lord Chief Justice said that it must have been an extraordinary thing to see such a stout woman. It appeared that five thousand people had visited it before the problem caused by the shop owner caused them to stop attending.
His personal opinion was that such exhibitions were all very well in proper places but the plaintiff (Kells) had no right to place it next to another man’s door and cause a nuisance.
The jury came down in favour of Kells, awarding him damages of a farthing but they considered that both parties were to blame for the problem so they rules each of them should pay their own costs.
Who was Miss C Heenan?
I’ve not been able to find any information about this woman. From the age given in various newspaper articles she was born around 1849 and was a resident in America. The 1868 handbill says she lives at Heenan Hall but there is no indication of the location of the large property shown in the sketch. My researches have failed to find this property or anything further about the lady.
Dublin Daily Express, Saturday 26 December 1868 page 4
Morning Advertiser, Saturday 22 April 1871, page 1
Westport Times, Volume V, Issue 892, Nov 25 1871
The Era 30 March, 1873, page 7
All above newspaper articles were accessed via the British Newspaper Archive www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk