The Circus Fat Family Leaves Brooklyn For The Country

The “Fat Family” Moves To The Country – 1914

The following article is from Chicago’s The Saturday Blade newspaper July 18, 1914:

New York, July 16 – Mr. and Mrs. Marshall Tanner and their four giant children, known to circus folk as the “Fat Family” have been sent to the country by kindly disposed women who became interested in their case. Tanner is going to rest for a week or so and then he will try to get a job.

“I guess by the time we’re all rested up some show will come along that’s a real one,” said Mrs. Tanner the thin mother of the fat children.

The last show the Tanners were in was not a real one. It went broke and Mr. and Mrs. Tanner were compelled to appeal to give their babies shelter and food lest they starve to death.

“Buster” Tanner, 5 years old is the heaviest, his weight being 187 pounds. Little Doris, alias “Snookums,” is six months old and weighs 63 pounds. The others, Barnard and Alvin, 2 and 3 years old, would take prizes for weight at any baby show, though they look thin beside the youngest and oldest of the four. The home of the Tanners is Nicholson, GA.

Today the media and public would either exploit this family or call to prosecute them for child abuse. Remember the Honey Boo Boo craze? In 1914 there was nothing wrong with the word fat or being fat. Today calling someone fat is considered “body shaming” by this generation’s snowflake word censors.

We Need Food

Figuring Coney Island would be a good place to get employment the Fat Family came looking for a sideshow.

The Fat Family’s father Marshall explained to a Brooklyn police lieutenant that they had come from Chicopee, MA where the circus had gone bust owing them $100. “We had just enough money to get to New York and we came. Here we are now. We have no engagement, no money, no food and no place to sleep. Not having food is a serious matter.” And in what may be the biggest understatement, Mr. Tanner added, ” The children are fond of eating.”

The news story had no substantial follow up, and the Fat Family did not receive anywhere near their allotted 15 minutes of fame.

But some quick research shows that the Fat Family did survive after their New York adventure.

From Circus Sideshow To Farming

An advertisement in late August has the Fat Family in New Jersey with Johnny J. Jones Exposition Shows. At this  traveling carnival patrons could see a flea circus, trained elephants, a motordrome and of course the Fat Family.

But apparently their stint of circus life did not suit the Tanners.

The 1920 U.S. census shows the Tanners returning to Coffee County, Georgia – in the Tanner district no less, because the Tanner ancestors home and farm once encompassed all of what is now the City of Nicholls (misprinted in the newspaper as Nicholson).

In the 1930 U.S. census, Marshall Tanner and family are still living in Nicholls, Georgia.

The census has Marshall Tanner age 52 and wife Fannie age 43, listing their occupations as farmers. Children, George Harold aka “Buster”, 22,¬† Leonard Alton (Alvin) 20, and Baynard (Barnard) 18, are all working on the family farm while 16-year-old Doris Edna “Snookums” was still in school.

The Tanner’s had an older daughter Marcelle who passed away at the age of nine on June 28, 1914, only three weeks after the newspaper story appeared. In a May 1914 review of the Fat Family, Billboard magazine described “seven year-old Mary Jane” (Marcelle) as weighing 302 pounds. Another Tanner child died in infancy in 1903. This photograph below very likely shows Marcelle and George around 1907, several years before beginning their life as sideshow attractions.

“Coffee County, ca. 1900, Mr. Tanner and his wife, Lovie Meeks Tanner, pose with their two children for this photograph. Note the quilt that is used as a backdrop” photo and caption: Georgia Archives from Vanishing Georgia

Meanwhile, 63 pound Doris “Snookums” was not six months old as cited in the newspaper story, but closer to 9 months old, having been born September 22, 1913.

What Became Of The Fat Family?

Doris’s father Marshall died April 17, 1945, and mother, Frances Fannie Meeks died April 27, 1963. Months later, Doris at age 49 married Milton Clemens Bussey November 24, 1963, two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Doris died March 14, 1968 and older brother George “Buster” died October 2, 1968 at age 61, both in Broxton, Coffee County, Georgia.

Siblings Leonard and Baynard lived relatively long lives from 1909-1992 and 1911- 2004 respectively.

We are left to wonder if the Fat Family continued that sobriquet upon leaving New York and returning to Georgia and whether or not the children slimmed down as adults. The answer is known only by their family and friends.

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