Time was, Cincinnati loved our fat men. These days, you put on a few pounds and everybody bombards you with unsolicited advice about exercise and your diet, but it used to be that fat men had real respect in this town.
Cincinnati is the home of William Howard Taft, among our favorite sons. “Big Bill” was a chunky lad but, despite the legend about him getting stuck in the White House bath tub, it is unlikely he ever weighed more than 340 pounds.
Now, Henry Rave—there was a big boy! It made front page news in 1894 when Henry Rave, of Westwood Avenue, died. Rave was so corpulent that he had been unable to sleep in a bed for close to a year, but was otherwise in moderately good health, according to the Cincinnati Post [February 23, 1894]:
Rave died on Wednesday of fattening of the heart. He was weighed the day before and the scale registered 460 pounds. He had not been ill until an hour before his death, dissolution being very sudden.
Rave’s coffin had to be custom made, and it took nine pallbearers to carry him to his eternal rest.
Visiting fat men got equal ink. When Joseph Wilbur Grimes came to Cincinnati on a visit to his brother, the newspapers spread the word. Grimes, allegedly 550 pounds in heft, made a living as a bicycle salesman and rode his own wheel around his hometown of Cleveland. According to the Post [September 12, 1898]:
“His physical condition is so fine that he is offered insurance policies at the same figures as the average man. His strength is abnormally great. He can lift a baby grand piano without assistance and is so active and well trained physically that he can step on a street car when it is going medium speed.”
So fascinated was the public by feats of avoirdupois that the owners of the Cincinnati Post launched a nationwide hunt for America’s fattest man in 1914. The winner was promised a gold medal and, should the winner be located somewhere outside the Queen City, a bronze medal would assuage the feelings of the heftiest man in Cincinnati.
Reports of this contest filled the newspaper from late spring well into summer. (Cynics among our readers will recognize that this was the annual journalistic period known as the “Silly Season.”) It quickly became apparent that Cincinnati was not even in the running for the gold medal. No one in our fair city managed to top 400 pounds, while competitors on the east coast and the vaudeville circuit inched ever nearer to an officially certified 700 pounds. (Where was Henry Rave when we needed him?)
Harry Shuey, a cigar maker, took an early lead in Cincinnati, although he only weighed 316 pounds. His friends pushed him into the contest on the strength of his regular victories in the fat-man races at Chester Park. He claimed the hot summer had taken the edge off his appetite and that he normally weighed 345.
Shuey sank into the pack, however, when George Oberhelman waddled it. Oberhelman, a wagon driver, took a while to visit the official scale because his rheumatism had been acting up. His friends were disappointed when his legal weight came in at 388; they were sure he’d top 390. According to the Post [June 25, 1914]:
Recently, Oberhelman fell down stairs. He bumped down 16 steps and stopped at the bottom with ‘a dull, sickening thud.’ Six men picked him up and hoisted him, by means of a derrick, into a second-story window. Lifting 800-pound cattle is one of his accomplishments, and stopping work hasn’t dulled his appetite. With the exception of handkerchiefs, all his clothes are made to order.
Oberhelman faded when a dark horse, saloonist Anthony Hueninghake roared into contention. Still unable to crack the 400 mark, Hueninghake managed to win the bronze in Cincinnati with a certified 399.5 pounds. The national gold medal went to “Happy” Jack Eckart of Alexandria, Louisiana, who grabbed the title with all of his 739 pound immensity.
When Jack Dempsey challenged Jess Willard for the world heavyweight boxing title in 1919, tickets were impossible to find. The Cincinnati Post, rather than award a few to the fattest men in town, split the ducats among a variety of measurements—mostly displayed by fat men—such as heaviest man, largest neck, largest calf, and largest chest, but also tallest man, longest reach, etc. Anthony Hueninghake won a pair of tickets based on his neck measurements, but the heaviest man in 1919 was 419-pound Joseph Denning of Mount Healthy.
When Ed Houser of Elmwood Place made the news in 1922, it had as much to do with his automobile as with his weight but, at 420 pounds, Ed was no slouch in the scale-busting department. Ed was an automobile salesman. He sold Fords and made a good advertisement for their durability. Although his Ford runabout was customized to allow him to reach over his substantial girth to grab the steering wheel and had reinforcing rods welded to the chassis, it had never broken down in five years of averaging 150 miles each day. Ed had no plans to lose weight. He told the Post [October 26, 1922]:
What’s the use? You only make yourself miserable. If I lost 20 pounds, what difference would it make? I would still weigh 400 pounds. I will begin to worry when I start losing weight. I try to stay fat and happy.