It may have been the biggest thing ever in the Twin Cities.

Back in 1870, with the Civil War fading into history, the fat men of Maine rolled into town for a Jan. 21 convention that delivered 400 supersized delegates to the Auburn Hall.

“It was the scene of a lifetime and a rare pleasure to look in the face of such sebaceous hosts and see how felicitous a thing it is to have some meat on one’s bones,” the Lewiston Evening Journal reported.

Old friends gathered from across the Pine Tree State to laugh and joke, “getting as near one another as their abounding rotundity could admit,” the paper reported.

On the 150th anniversary of the celebrated gathering, concerns about excess weight are as commonplace as love handles. But it wasn’t that way back then.

A rendering of a scene from the fall 1869 Fat Men’s Ball in New York City. Uncertain

Coming just weeks after the establishment of a fat men’s club in New York – which held a well-publicized Christmas ball – the idea of big guys getting together was in the air, driven in part by the reality that in those days, there weren’t many fat men around.

Kerry Segrave, a historian of obesity, said Americans at the time generally performed hard physical labor and struggled to get by, even to find enough to eat. The few fat men were almost all well-to-do, Segrave said, so worries about obesity were largely non-existent.

With the attendees happily embracing their excess pounds, nobody fretted about being offensive in their efforts to one-up each other as they searched for ways to describe the gargantuan activity afoot.

The guest of honor for the Fat Men of Maine assembly was the Wilton woman named the “Maine Giantess” by showman P.T. Barnum some 15 years earlier. After appearing in Barnum’s New York City museum, Sylvia Hardy traveled for several years with Col. Wood’s Museum of Living Wonders before returning home to Wilton.

A Currier & Ives print of Sylvia Hardy, The Maine Giantess Museum of the City of New York

The day before the convention, the Lewiston paper mentioned “a very general desire” to invite Hardy to the gathering.

After all, it noted, “Women have as much right as men to the honors of the day — and in this case might show her superiority.”

Hardy arrived on the noon train on Friday, Jan. 21, towering above everyone else at a tad more than 6 feet, 10 inches tall, the paper said, a step down from Barnum’s claim that she stretched 8 feet from head to toe. The New York Times’ pegged her as almost 17 feet tall in its account, which might explain its headline marveling about an “exceedingly tall woman present.”

Weighing in at 366 pounds, Hardy stood on a stage with two of the heftiest men in the room, neither of them quite as heavy as she was.

The biggest man in Androscoggin County, the Lewiston paper said, weighed 286 pounds, hardly enough to notice nowadays.

As the giantess stood there with her heavy companions at the front of the hall, some dwarfs were invited to stand in front of them, the account said.

That sight caused the hall to burst into guffaws.

“Those fat men were convulsed — many rolled lengthwise and sidewise — their laughter was a wonderful feat,” the paper reported. “The lean men joined till we thought everybody would laugh to death. It was the convention’s culminating point.”

FAT MEN UNITED AS ONE

A Portland grocer’s advertising card from about 1875 depicting a rotund man.

The Journal did its best to join in the spirit of the convention.

“Swimming lustily along our streets and beating as much vexed air with puffy lungs, have been today a host of noblemen with faces ruddy and intelligent and paunches ponderous and bulky.

“They came obedient to the kindly summons today to Auburn Hall and the groaning tables of the DeWitt” hotel’s banquet room, the paper said.

It bemoaned that some who measure life by its grind alone cannot see the use of a Fat Men’s Convention.

It hailed those who believe that “a little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men” who could not “fail to encourage and unite in such corpulent and peculiar festivities as those to which this convention has invited the Giants today.”

“To gather together in fraternal and social relations, the Fat Men of Maine was a fat idea and a colossal felicity — that they might know one another better and still further lubricate their unctuous lives with the oil of the festal board.”

The Waterville Mail took a more negative approach and couldn’t resist a snide comment as the day approached: “If the convention will weigh their brains against their bellies, they will find that extremes have met.”

Meanwhile the Lewiston Evening Journal noted, with a little sadness, that there wasn’t an editor in Maine entitled to admission. The halcyon days of the news profession were already over, it said.

THE FAT MEN GATHER IN THE TWIN CITIES

By the afternoon of the day before the convention, a lot of heavy men were already plodding all over the place in Lewiston and Auburn.

The local newspaper reported that 200 or more convention attendees were expected, each shelling out $1 for a ticket. Twice that many showed up.

By the morning of the formal gathering, “the streets assumed an unwontedly fat appearance,” the paper said, with “men immense as Thor filling up big sleighs and running over the vehicles’ sides” as they flitted along.

“Here and there, a 300-pounder, focus of all eyes, toddled heavily through the streets, followed by the smiles of the admiring crowd of lean and hungry miserables,” the Journal said.

“Magnificent specimens of obesity” were everywhere, it added, and everybody was in the best humor.

“Even the habitually bilious smiled and said, ‘It was after all a happy idea,’” the paper said. “Such was the general hilarity. There was added to the sunshine of the day the ruddy sunshine of plethoric faces. The Blues were in eclipse.”

SJ.fatmen.xx-AuburnHall

Auburn Hall in the 19th century, from a stereoscope picture. The hall on Court Street is now part of Auburn City Hall.  Maine Historic Preservation Commission

THE CONVENTION BEGINS

Before things got underway, Auburn Hall was already packed, with galleries and anterooms full of “ladies who showed their keen appreciation of the occasion by their numerous attendance, and their favor to fat men by winsome smiles.”

Jacob Barker Ham, the first mayor of Lewiston City of Lewiston

The delegates occupied the seats with bright faces and big smiles, telling each other “we are bully good fellows.”

“Lean people could not have been so social,” the paper said. “It isn’t in them. It takes men of this kidney to act as well as talk about genuine and sensible hilarity.”

At 10 a.m., the 212-pound Jacob Barker Ham, the first mayor of Lewiston, called the convention to order, telling those assembled its object was simply to have fun and look each other over.

“Fat men are jolly,” he said, “and we welcome you jollily.”

“These two sister cities thrice welcome you,” Ham added. “May your shadows never grow less.”

Mandeville T. Ludden City of Lewiston

The convention’s chair, attorney Mandeville T. Ludden of Lewiston, a future mayor, said he was grateful to see men of such proportions.

They set up a set of scales in one corner of the hall “on which heavyweight after heavyweight turned the beam, 200 pounds and upwards,” the Journal reported.

“It was estimated that there were at least 100,000 pounds” among the delegates — “50 tons of fat men,” including four tons from Augusta alone, the paper stated.

In another corner, organizers measured heights, finding that Charles Emery of Lewiston, at 6 feet, 5 inches, was the tallest delegate until A.T. Jellson of Otisfield showed up late and beat him by a quarter of an inch.

The heaviest, George Brackett of North Hermon, tipped the scales at 347 pounds “without hat or overcoat.”

Born in Lisbon, the paper said, “his father was small before him and he has a brother nearly as small as he is.”

Introduced next was C.O. Sullivan of Lewiston, an Irish immigrant, called “a smart, faithful man” by Ham. He weighed in at 112 pounds, his height of 4 feet, 2 inches.

Taking the rostrum next to the tallest fellows were two short men who reached just above the knees of the larger counterparts.

“It was a merry sight, worth many a ton of ordinary wonders — and the roars that greeted them attested fully the agreeable oddity of the sight,” the Journal reported.

Among the newspapers nationally that took note of the convention was one in Winnebago City, Minnesota.

Its editor called it “a curious circumstance that one of the heaviest men of the Convention of the Fat Men of Maine bears the name of Small, and that another, but a little lighter, is named Littlefield. One of the heavyweights there is named Rounds.”

A PROCESSION TO LEWISTON

When the gathering broke up, the delegates proceeded to a dinner at the DeWitt House hotel in Lewiston — then on the corner of Pine and Park streets, across from City Hall — while the whole community gawked.

“From the Courthouse to the bridge was one dense mass of people — men, women and children,” the paper said. “The windows, loads of wood in the street, piazza roofs, the bridge, the sidewalks and the street were full of spectators.”

Led by a dwarf and Johnson’s Cornet Band, a procession started out to the roar of the crowd.

Spectators “screamed with delight and the fat men laughed until they were obliged to slap each other on the back to prevent strangulation,” according to an account in the The Daily Dispatch in Richmond, Virginia.

Getting into the spirit of the day, The Boston Post reported that “creeping things for miles around were massacred” by the parading giants and “the earth rumbled, as if undergoing a first-class quake; the foundations of houses jostled and settled; doors swung all awry; children and grown people were knocked over by the concussion; and the very air was heavy as this extraordinary humanity progressed.”

A large sled called the General Grant, pulled by a big team of horses and decorated with flags, “bore a couple dozen of these giants who could not easily walk, and was greeted at all points with hearty cheers.”

Another sleigh held Sylvia Hardy. The Journal said that “the ladies were especially interested to see the ‘Giantess’ and odd were the remarks of the ‘taper-waisted’ upon this magnificent woman.”

By the time the men reached Haymarket Square in front of what is now the Peck Building on Main Street on the Lewiston side of the bridge, a dense mass of people were again surrounding them.

The paper estimated 10,000 people lined the streets, with “vehicles of every description by the hundred.”

Lisbon Street, it said, was packed.

When the procession reached the DeWitt House, where people filled the balconies and windows, the crowd parted to let them go inside.

The Dewitt House in Lewiston was a hotel and social center for the community, and site of a big dinner for the Fat Men of Maine in 1870. Robert R. Bedard Postcard Collection

A FAT FEAST FOR THE DELEGATES

Superbly furnished for the men, a meal for 200 was laid out.

“The tables presented a groaning load of good things — dressed with jellies and salads, fruit and dessert of variety, while the solider basis of meats was by no means neglected,” the Journal said.

By 1:30 that afternoon, “as rollicking and sensible a company as ever sat down” was ready “to ‘do’ an excellent thing — a dinner,” the paper said.

The dining room at the Dewitt House in Lewiston where attendees of the Fat Men of Maine Convention gathered for a meal in January 1870. Maine Historic Preservation Commission

“We did not see that the fat men could eat any more exhaustively than lean men,” it said. “Indeed, it was affirmed that the biggest eater in Lewiston is a doctor who weighs considerably less than 200 pounds. But still there was feasty eating,” it said.

Lewiston men supposedly led the pack in devouring what they could.

One, J.E. Wilcox, “could damage the most colossal pile of roast beef of any man in the company. There were others that did nobly, but it was generally conceded Wilcox spoilt the largest heap of viands,” the paper said.

“It was as though an ancient hecatomb had disappeared in one cyclopean maw,” the paper said.

“How we laughed,” the account continued. “Never was it shown more unanswerably that the secret of good digestion is good humor. To look on them as they bailed full their gigantic frames was rare felicity — nothing better except eating yourself when you are hungry, which a reporter can’t stop to do.”

The reporter wasn’t alone in watching with an obvious touch of envy.

“Gazing in at the dining hall door, wistfully, was a doleful background of bony people, feeling a good deal as Oliver Twist always did,” the Journal said.

Sylvia Hardy sat at one of the head tables, neatly dressed and somehow maintaining her poise.

The paper said 25 tons of humanity walked in the door and — after hefty guffaws and clattering glasses — took another ton of turkey, roast beef and roast pig with them when they left.

The whole convention, especially the dinner, was, the Journal said, “a coup d’etat on leanness and biliousness.”

Lee Strickland of Livermore told a story lauding the fat men before ending with his clear sentiment: “The Fat Men’s Convention — May it cause mothers more to cherish fat babies.”

At 3 p.m., it was all over.

Cover page for the 1869 “Fat Men’s Polka Redowa” played at the first ball held by the Fat Men’s Association in New York City in 1869. Hathi Trust Digital Library

WRAPPING IT ALL UP

The Journal declared it had been “unquestionably the richest and best” social gathering ever held in Maine.

“The convention throughout was conducted in the most creditable manner,” it said, with “no unseemly disorder of any kind occurring.”

“We trust the fat men may meet again,” the paper concluded in its evening edition that same afternoon..

The next day, the Journal looked back at the event again, calling it “in every respect a complete and unexpected success.”

“The attendance was very large, the specimens of fat humanity numerous and curious, and the proceedings calculated to provoke laughter, and at the same time to arouse a feeling of wonder in view of the remarkable specimens of our race brought into contact,” it said.

A few days later, in response to the Boston Herald wondering if there were leftovers, the Lewiston paper told its “jolly friends” in Massachusetts they were out of luck.

“The mooses of the Fat Mens’ convention so lined their maws with venison that we haven’t a scrap left even for a cadaverous elder,” it said.

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