John and Hannah Battersby: A Side Show Love Story
“Jack Sprat Could Eat No Fat; His Wife Could Eat No Lean…”
A love story for the ages! John Battersby (c.1831-1897) was a circus thin man who weighed at various times between 45 and 52 lbs during his working career. His wife, Hannah Perkins Battersby (1836-1889) was a professional fat lady who weighed over ten times as much as her husband (if some of the claims are to be believed, much more). That the affair was more than just a publicity stunt can be attested to by the existence of their daughter Rachel (b.1859)
John’s weight loss began when he was a teenager. An English native, he began working at Barnum’s American Museum at age 23. He met Hannah Perkins, who was from Maine, while she too was working for Barnum. It has been claimed that by her mid 20s Hannah weighed as much as 714 lbs, making her the heaviest woman of her time. She was also over 6 feet tall and three foot wide at the shoulder; to a certain extent then she was naturally large and not the product of intentional “fattening-up” (as some circus fat women were). Special accommodations often had to be made for her when she traveled due to her size and weight.
In 1873, John permanently damaged his spine and was confined to a wheelchair. He retired from show business and, according to accounts, his weight shot up to a hundred pounds. Hannah continued to tour however, while John made their permanent home in Frankford, Philadelphia. In 1889, Hannah died of an infection contracted after she fell off a stage in New Bedford, Massachusetts. John and their daughter Rachel then moved to Beaver City, Nebraska, and then to Almena, Kansas where he died eight years later. Rachel settled down in the area and married a police man.
Tales of the couple’s devotion to one another are rife, although it’s difficult to parse out the fact from the fiction when the primary sources are ultimately circus p.r. copy. It’s said that Hannah would cradle John in her arms like an infant when he was sick, and that she rescued him from one of Barnum’s museum fires by carrying him out of the building on her back. John was said to have jealously kept all reporters and photographers away from Hannah’s corpse as she lay in her 7 foot wide casket.
May we each have a person in our lives about whom the civilian equivalent may be said. Happy Valentine’s Day!
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.