Society’s obsession with weight is not a new phenomenon, but it seems a most curious detail to include in an obituary. William Carlin of the Town of Ottawa in Waukesha County, Wisconsin, suffered such a fate when newspapers made his girth the top fact in his obituary.
“Weighed 385 Pounds,” read the Page 1 headline in the The Waukesha Freeman on May 25, 1899. “Mr. Carlin weighed 385 pounds and was doubtless the heaviest man in the county,” the article said. “His death was caused by fatty degeneration of the heart.” Doubtless. It’s unclear how the newspaper reached such a conclusion. Carlin, who was just 50 when he died, was not part of a circus. He didn’t seek fame as the state’s fattest man. Yet the newspaper deemed his life should boil down to the fact he was heavy. The Weekly Wisconsin newspaper in Milwaukee also found Carlin’s weight newsworthy, but relegated it to Page 5.
So history won’t remember him only for his body size, we’ll shed some more light on the life of William Carlin. Born November 23, 1849 in the Town of Ottawa, he was the son of Christopher Carlin and the former Elizabeth Cobb. Christopher Carlin died at age 37 in June 1858, when William was 8 years old. The Carlins were farmers on land northwest of tiny North Prairie. Christopher Carlin emigrated from England. At one time in the 1890s, William Carlin owned 300 acres of farmland in Waukesha County.
William Carlin married the former Annie Jones, and they had two children. Orville Walter Carlin, husband of Emma (Treutel) Carlin, was born February 5, 1874. Elizabeth J. “Lizzie” Carlin was born in January 1881. Their mother died in May 1889 at the young age of 37. Orville and Lizzie suffered a second tragedy in May 1899 when their father died, as newspapers said, from “fatty degeneration of the heart.” Orville married Emma Treutel and moved to Vesper, Wisconsin, where he operated a butcher shop. He died in 1934 at age 60. Lizzie married Jacob F. Supita. She died in 1944. William’s brother, Thomas Carlin, died in 1903 at age 52, so it seems genetics worked against the Carlin men.
Newspapers have long carried stories about record-setters, be it for height or weight. Often the subject of the stories sought the publicity. But what of those who didn’t? Did La Crosse businessman Samuel P. Welsh approve of his moniker as Wisconsin’s fattest man? When he married Grace Dutzel in June 1911, newspapers across the Midwest carried stories on how he weighed 400 pounds, while his bride “tipped the beam” at just 100 pounds. The Indianapolis News ran a Page 1 wire story on the Welshes arriving in Milwaukee for their honeymoon.
The Green Bay Republican carried this tidbit in December 1843: “The fattest man in the world lives in Connecticut. He is so thick through that he must lie down when he wishes to look tall.”
Dave McGuire of Silver Lake, Wisconsin, posed for a newspaper photograph in May 1921. It ran under the caption, “World’s Fattest? Who Knows?” “Dave McGuire of Silver Lake, Wis., doesn’t belong to a circus, nor does he ever expect to enter one,” one newspaper caption read. “He’s six feet seven inches tall and weighs 744 pounds, but he doesn’t care to go to the trouble of finding out whether he’s the fattest man in the world or not. He’s satisfied with the simple farm life.“