Baby Bliss became a national sensation at an early age and remained in the spotlight – and in the newspapers – for the rest of his life, a life tinged with sadness, and one that ended too soon and under mysterious circumstances.
Here’s the first mention of Baby Bliss I could find …
“Baby” Bliss, a 20-year-old youth who weighs between 300 and 400 pounds, is an applicant for admission to Custer division U.R.K. of P. He will certainly be admitted if it can be ascertained that there is enough cloth in town to make a uniform. The Pantagraph, Bloomington, Illinois, August 22, 1887.
Ouch! That hurts. The U.R.K. of P. is the Uniformed Rank of the Knights of Columbus. And so it began: An endless string of newspaper stories that took a poke and a jab at the size and shape of Baby Bliss.
Leonard Harmon “Baby” Bliss was born on May 4, 1865 near Bloomington, Illinois to what the newspapers later described as normal-sized parents. His birth weight was a hefty 12 pounds, but it wasn’t until his teens that his body began to grow unusually large. According to numerous newspaper reports, at the age of 11 he was 6-feet tall and weighed 180 pounds. At 17, he was 6-foot-3 (his final height) and weighed 280. At 19: 350 pounds. A few years later, he topped 500 pounds and his highest recorded weight was somewhere in the vicinity of 560 pounds.
The annual ball given by the Railway Switchmen Brotherhood at Guards’ Armory last night was a huge success in point of attendance and social enjoyment. Among the notable visitors were … “Baby” Bliss of Bloomington, weight 385 pounds, who danced the Highland Fling alone, with grace and ease of a premier assoluta. Decatur Daily Republic, Illinois, February 15, 1889
An assoluta? A premier ballerina. And yes, they used a lot of different words back then. The Highland Fling? It’s the national dance of Scotland, a vigorous, solo dance in which the performer shows off a range of moves.
Baby Bliss Insane
This was the headline on a story that ran in The Herald-Despatch, Decatur, Illinois, May 3, 1890. And yes: Despatch, it’s not a typo. Here’s the story …
Leonard Bliss who travelled for a Bloomington cigar house, has become insane, and will be sent to the asylum at Kankakee. The cause of his infliction is not known, and a story that he drank to excess is positively denied. Young Bliss weights over 400 pounds and, on account of his great size and jovial nature, was known far and wide over central Illinois … Mr. Bliss was liked by all. For all he had a pleasant word or smile and it was hoped by his friends that his insanity may be of short duration.
Baby Bliss was released after a short stay at Kankakee and was “again demented” according to a January 28, 1893 article in the Decatur Daily Republic. This was also a short stay. And then, Baby Bliss got his big break. The advent of the “safety bicycle” in the 1880s led to a huge bicycle boom in the 1890s, the golden age of the bicycle. There were hundreds of U.S. manufacturers, bicycle clubs sprang up everywhere and racing was huge. Everyone it seemed was bicycle crazy.
And so, what better way to advertise that your bicycle is strong and sturdy than to have 500-pound man ride it? That was the thinking of the International Manufacturing Company, which was led by Ignaz Schwinn, who would later start Ignaz Bicycle Company. Only kidding, he took the safe route and called his company Schwinn.
Signing up Baby Bliss was a shrewd move, as he attracted attention and newspaper stories wherever he appeared. Here’s a story from the July 5, 1895 edition of The Sandusky Register, Ohio, detailing a Chicago road race in which Baby Bliss served as the “limit man,” which meant he led out the racers, but didn’t complete the race.
He tips the hay scales when in strict training at 487 pounds and is without a doubt the largest man in America who rides a bicycle. As Bliss is only 22 years of age there is still room for hope that he may grow even heavier … [He] was the limit man in the great road race and made good time for a man of his enormous size.
Here’s a story from The Chicago Chronicle, Saturday, July 13, 1895 …
DENVER, Col., July 12 – Baby Bliss, Chicago’s ponderous cyclist, ran into Mrs. Nichols while out for a constitutional last evening and knocked her over. She was injured so that she had to be carried into a drug store and cared for.
At some point in the summer of 1895, the Baby’s weight was listed at 502 pounds and 508 pounds. Whether he had actually gained weight, or this was just a ploy by the International Manufacturing Company, is unknown. I didn’t find a single story in which the local officials or the members of a cycling club or race officials weighed Baby Bliss. I guess they just took his word.
His weight was a selling point, as the International Manufacturing Company advertised that he rode a “regular” 24-pound America bike that anyone could purchase. Impressive, right? Well, here’s a story from the August 2, 1895 edition of The Daily Times, Davenport, Iowa …
The wheel which Mr. Bliss rides is supposed to weigh twenty-four pounds but some of the boys were determined not to be sold on its weight slipped it from the City Repair shop on Third street where it had been left to have a broken spoke mended and wheeled it into Sickels, Preston & Nutting Co’s. store next door. The wheel was weighed and tipped the beam at 29 ½ pounds. It is, however, a very light wheel for a man like Baby Bliss to ride.
Now that’s what I call investigative journalism!
Baby Bliss spent most of 1895, 1896 and early 1897 touring the United States, with a side trip to Europe in the fall of 1896. Everywhere he went, and he seemed to go everywhere, there were newspaper stories. He was a rock star, sports superstar and carnival oddity all rolled onto one bicycle.
Sometimes, he even raced. Here’s a story from the August 4, 1895 edition of The Chicago Chronicle …
Then the fat men one-third mile handicap, with “Baby” Bliss, weight 508 pounds, and Edward Marcus, weight 308 pounds … “The baby” was given an allowance of 150 yards, which his midget antagonist rode from scratch. At the crack of the pistol Bliss bent his head low and sped toward the finish. Marcus followed, steadily gaining on his big opponent. The lead was too much, for Bliss won by a length.
Baby Bliss Broke the Train
This was the headline in the March 3, 1896 edition of the Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, New York.
Baby Bliss, the 502-pound rider, wires that his weight delayed the train; he expects to be at the Hughes cycle show the balance of the week. He is a great ladies’ man, and would like to meet all the ladies of Rochester. Cycle show is free, open evenings.
At a cycling event in Kansas City, “He did not seem to mind the jests and facetious remarks cast at him, for whenever he heard one he smiled like a ‘seraphin.’” Was Baby Bliss smiling on the inside, or crying, as he listened to all the jests and facetious remarks? I’m reminded of the Smokey Robinson song: Tears of a Clown.
Baby Bliss was so famous that other large people were called the Baby Bliss of their town or the Baby Bliss of where they worked. For example, in the May 1, 1896 edition of The Wichita Beacon, Kansas: “J.F. McCoy, the Baby Bliss of the Wichita post office has purchased a new bicycle, and will give daily exhibitions of his skill in the streets.” Many of the Baby’s large contemporaries challenged him to a race, hoping to become as famous as the Baby.
And then there’s this story from the Milwaukee Journal that was picked up by several other papers …
His legs are as large around as a good sized telegraph pole and in size his body compares favorably to the boiler of one of the J. I. Case T. M. company’s traction engines. His feet are as large in proportion to his body, which led the old Walworth county soldier to remark, “They would make good road markers.”
Where, you may be wondering, did Baby Bliss sleep on his travels. Here’s a story from the Canton Advocate, Ohio …
“Baby” Bliss stayed at the Harlan house last night and now Lord Seely is figuring how much he is out on the deal as the bed occupied by the “infant” was smashed to smithereens … This morning Albert Oehmen had the pleasure of shaving “the biggest man in the United States” and he declares that 10 cents failed to pay for the lather used in the operation.
The Baby Goes Abroad
“The visit of ‘Baby’ Bliss has been causing a mild sensation amongst Dundee cyclist this week,” read the October 9, 1896 edition of The Currier and Argus, Dundee, Scotland.
During his trip, a meeting was arranged between Baby Bliss and Thomas Longley, who was advertised as the world’s heaviest man at 42 stone (588 pounds). The Baby was a mere 36 stone (504 pounds). “The meeting was of an extraordinary character, the cyclist being twenty-three years of age and the heaviest man fifty years; but naturally their conversation was entirely upon the subject of “weights and measures.”
The Boom is Over
By the end of 1897, the bicycle boom was over, as sales lagged and bicycle-manufacturing companies folded. The Baby was out of a job. But not for long, according to The Champaign Daily News on November 19, 1898 …
Baby Bliss of Bloomington, who is well known in this city, has left the bicycle business and will travel for a proprietary medicine company all over the state. He has just received a new suit of clothes … which is described as something very loud, in fact noisy enough to be heard in Iowa or Indiana. It consists of a large red and black plaid coat and vest, brown trousers and mauve colored silk hat.
This marked the beginning of the long, sad decline of Baby Bliss. Things didn’t seem to work out with the medicine company, and he struggled to regain his former fame. In 1899 there was a story about him riding a “Clyde stallion weighing 1800 pounds … what puzzled the people was how Bliss ever got on the animal.” For a while, he was captain of the travelling Fat Men’s Baseball Team which, as the name suggests, was comprised of large baseball players. The shortstop weighed in at over 300 pounds. An ad in 1910 advertised the appearance of Jolly Trixie and Baby Bliss, The World’s Fattest Girl and Boy. Trixie Weighs 685 lbs. Baby Bliss weights 596. lbs.
Death Takes “Baby” Bliss
This was the headline in hundreds of stories across the nation in early January 1912. It was national news. Here’s the story from The Champaign Daily News, January 5, 1912 …
Since the removal of his mother to a hospital for treatment recently he has been living alone. Having been missed by his neighbors, the door was forced in by the police and the dead body of Bliss was found. He was seated in a mammoth arm chair of his own manufacture, in front of a gas stove. The cock had been accidentally turned on and death resulted from asphyxiation. Bliss was 575 pounds and was probably the heaviest man in the world.
A few newspaper stories speculated that he committed suicide, but most said it was accidental. Scores of stories wrote about how he was buried in “a coffin forty inches wide as especially made for him.” And so, in life and death, Baby Bliss was indeed larger than life.