Thousands turn out for funeral of American mixed race celebrity in Bristol (1920)

16Oct12

In 1920, most people employed in the factories and offices of central Bristol worked on Saturdays. The lucky ones only had to work Saturday mornings, and were especially keen to knock off at lunchtime on Saturday October 2 1920.

Despite the rain, which got worse as the day went on, large crowds gathered  outside the Bristol Royal Infirmary, and on Whitson Street, close to the entrance to the hospital mortuary. Thousands gathered at other vantage-points, particularly Lower Maudlin Street, and down on Bristol Bridge.

When the motor hearse, and funeral cars finally began their journey to Arnos Vale cemetery, they had difficulty getting through the huge number of sightseers.

Back in those days, tens of thousands might line the city streets for the funeral of some wealthy businessman or civic dignitary. A big send-off was a major public spectacle, all part of the extravagant and complex mourning rituals which were observed when one of the great and good had died.

This was something very different, though. This was the funeral of a mixed-race American woman, and one of the most remarkable and enigmatic celebrities who ever lived in Bristol.

Lucy Moore, aka “The Jersey Lily”, aka “The American Fat Girl” or, to use the stage-name the Bristol newspapers favoured, “Lovely Lucy”, claimed to be the fattest woman in the world.

She had made a career on the stage and as a fairground sideshow and at one stage was said to weigh almost 48 stone. In a small biographical pamphlet she appeared to offer a reward of £1,000 to anyone who could produce a woman heavier than her. Though in fact if you read it carefully, it’s hedged with some legal-ese that would have got her out of it: “£1,000 will be given to any person or persons who can produce a Female of my age and weight.”

The people who gathered to watch Lovely Lucy’s last journey were, then, hoping to see her final performance as a novelty act. As they waited, they speculated with one another as to how large, exactly, the coffin would be.

She had died at the age of 43 following a long battle with cancer during which she had lost over half her weight. Nonetheless, the coffin was wider and longer than most, and eight men were needed to carry it from the mortuary to the hearse.

The crowd, said the Western Daily Press, while expecting a spectacle, were nonetheless respectful. “There was an attitude of reverence, and hats and caps were doffed freely all along the route to the Cemetery.”

The burial records at Arnos Vale give her name as Eliza Elizabeth Moore. During her career she also went by the name Alma Moore, while her original name might have been Anna Chelton. She was born in Lexington, Kentucky to a black American mother and white English father.

She was born normal size but rapidly put on weight as a child. By the age of 12 she was said to weigh over 27 stone. She was “professionally fat” by 17, appearing at circuses and freakshows in the United States. Her weight was all the more remarkable considering that she was a very average (for a woman) five feet four inches tall.

“In a good many cases of fat people, you find the flesh soft and flabby, cause by disease – dropsy being the most common complaint. If you have not noticed the solidity and firmness of Miss Moore’s flesh, pay a return visit and convince yourself that she is in reality a mountain of solid humanity.”

According to that same biographical pamphlet, she was touring Europe by the early 1900s, and appeared before many crowned heads. She travelled, we are told, with her own specially adapted suite of rooms.

Much of this may well be exaggerated, just old-fashioned fairground showmanship; the same sort of bullstuff that you get in showbiz nowadays. It must have been the same with her occasional use of the stage-name ‘The Jersey Lily’, which was of course the nickname of her more famous showbiz contemporary, Lily Langtry.

Lucy’s life is full of mysteries, not least why she settled in Bristol, at an address on Constitution Hill.

(An aside for our foreign visitors. Constitution Hill is quite steep. As a reasonably fit 20-year-old I worked for a while as a road-sweeper and getting my barrow up it nearly killed me. How the hell a 48-stone woman in middle age would have got up it is a complete mystery.)

According to one press report, she wanted to retire from public life, and it may be that she came here to live with her sister, Annie Moore, whom press reports described as “a woman of colour.” Perhaps her weight had caused other health problems which pre-dated her final illness and she needed to be looked after. In any event, it seems unlikely that she had much money left by the time she died as she was buried in a common grave at Arnos Vale.

She spent her final weeks at the BRI where her weight caused a lot of problems, but where we are told she endured her illness cheerfully and the medical staff were able to relieve some of her pain.

At Arnos Vale, a rainstorm swept in as her coffin was lowered, watched by another huge crowd as well as the principal mourners, including her sister Annie and her former manager, Mr G.W. Langdon and his family. The service was led by the Reverend J. Stern of St Peter’s, Clifton, who had known Miss Moore well during her time in Bristol. He said it had been a great privilege to minister to her.

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