Coldwater, Mich. — By Dave McDonald
The Branch District Library’s Heritage Room houses many archive folders with many more interesting, true stories of people and times long past, but not forgotten.
While doing some local history research recently, I came across an interesting, unusual story. It was about a lady who lived in Branch County in the late 1800s. Her real name was Elizabeth Charlotte Stice. And she was a circus fat lady.
Elizabeth (Stice) Whitlock, a portrait.
She lived, died and was buried in Batavia Township between Coldwater and Bronson. Little did I know that along with some interesting facts, I would also discover far more questions and mystery than answers.
During her life, Elizabeth also used circus names, Lottie Grant and later, Lizzie Whitlock. She has been reported as being born in 1853, 1854 and May 12, 1849. Some report her place of birth as Iowa, Missouri or British Columbia. One self-claimed great-granddaughter says Monroe County, Mo.
Lizzie tipped the scales at over 500 pounds at 14 years old, the age at which it is said that she ran away from home. It is also noted that she grew to as much as 722 pounds at some point. But it is known that she weighed over 650 pounds at the time of her death in Batavia.
She was married at least three times during her life, and there is suspicion of a fourth marriage. There were four children born to Lizzie. Her third child was actually named P. T. Barnum Whitlock, reflecting her association with the P. T. Barnum Circus.
Lizzie was recorded on the S. H. Barrett & Company Circus routing report in 1883-84 as a member of their circus. Lizzie married Frank Whitlock, a Carney Caller with the same circus, at Seward, Neb. on Aug. 9, 1883. They reported her as being 27 years old, creating an additional possible birth date of 1855. She was a mere 593 pounds at the time.
Elizabeth (Stice) Whitlock died of heart problems on Aug. 16, 1899, at her home located in Batavia. But, no, the story does not end yet. Lizzie’s story still has more twists before ending.
One story of her funeral tells that the casket company thought undertakers had made a mistake on the casket dimensions and didn’t build the coffin, forcing them to bury her in a piano case.
But research of 1899 newspapers reveals another story. The casket company did build the oversize coffin, but it did not arrive at the railroad station in Coldwater until 8:29 p.m. the evening of the funeral.
Picking up the casket, they drove the wagon straight to Batavia where they placed Lizzie in the coffin. A window facing the front porch provided an opening large enough for exit. They removed her from the house and held a midnight burial at the Batavia Cemetery.
Lizzie was placed in an unmarked grave, but in 1996, the Branch County Historical Society led an effort to place a marker. As they could not locate any record of her grave location at the time, they used a local body-witcher who claimed to have located her burial site. On that basis, the headstone was set in place.
However, the records of former Township Supervisor Nathan Shumway state that Lizzie’s grave was at the end of the row containing Bassett family markers. That would be two rows closer to the road than the headstone’s current location. So where is Lizzie, really!?
Has Lizzie Whitlock been forgotten? No! Several figurines decorate her headstone, left by fascinated visitors. Many people record their initials and the date of their visit on the always present spiral note pad. Thus leaving behind proof that the P. T. Barnum Circus fat lady can still draw fans and the curious.
From an old Coldwater Photo Album bought at auction
Additional notes on Stice:
“Many called her the original fat lady of the circus.”
Whitlock also became skilled as a snake charmer.
“Lizzie was proud of her fat lady title and content with the life she led.”
She mothered four children.
The last two years of her life she suffered from an unknown ailment.
Her shoes were size 24. That is a woman’s size 8 in comparison.