04 July 2016

Grave matters: Death of a Cardiff “Giantess”

This was the sensational headline on the front page of The Cardiff Times on 13 March 1909:

The ‘giantess’ was obviously a woman of gigantic proportions but she was, in fact, not a giantess – at least not in the commonly accepted definition of a giant as an exceptionally tall person. Mrs J. H. Laubender was just very very fat. In the days when obesity wasn’t as prevalent as it is today, a woman like Mrs Laubender was most unusual, and The Times reporter is almost glowing in his description of her amplitude:

“The Birmingham giantess" was a lady of wonderful proportions, weighing in her prime just over 32 stone. She measured 2 feet 6 inches across the chest, while her waist circumference was close on three yards. Her right arm biceps were 28 inches across, forearm 24 inches, and the calf of the right leg spanned exactly 30 inches.

Such generous measurements meant Mrs Laubender was a novelty, such a novelty that she could earn her living from being a ‘freak’ – and that’s exactly what this ‘giantess’ did.

From wikimedia commons
But let’s backtrack a little.… My tale of Mrs Laubender begins on 15 July 1860 when she was christened at Rowley-Regis in Stafford. Her name was Mary Ann Green and she was the daughter of Emanuel Green and Elizabeth Green, née Bannister, both of whom haled from Brades Village. Nine months later, at the time of the 1861 census, Mary Ann was living with her parents in Bath Row, in Oldbury. Not unexpectedly, given their location in the heart of the Black Country, Emanuel Green was listed as a sheet mill shearer, so would have worked in a local ironworks, cutting sheets of metal to size for various manufacturing processes.

By the time of the 1881 census, the family had both expanded and moved. The Greens were then living at Dudley Port in Tipton, Staffordshire, and Mary Ann, then 21, was the oldest of five children (Joseph aged 15, Harry aged 13, Catherine aged 5, and Samuel aged 4). Also living with the family was 27-year-old Henry Royal, a friend from Birmingham. In fact, he was to become rather more than a friend as he and Mary Ann were married some time between 1881 and 1891, though I haven’t located a marriage record. A daughter, also named Mary Ann, was born in mid 1887.

Mary Ann’s father Emanuel died towards the end of 1887 and her mother remarried at the end of 1889, to John Briggs, a market gardener. The Briggs family, with young Samuel Green, lived in the appropriately named Celery Cottage in Clarborough, in Nottinghamshire.

M0015543 Show Bill, Barnum and Bailey's show.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London

By the time of the 1891 census Mary Ann had joined the circus. It’s impossible to tell whether she was always a large person or whether she simply increased in size as she grew older. In 1891, she is listed as Mary Ann Royal, she is married, aged 40, and her occupation is showwoman. Her husband (Harry Royal, married, 48, showman) and a daughter (Mary Ann Royal, single, 15, showgirl) are also listed. The Royals were living in a caravan at the fair ground in Deptford High Street, in London, with a group of other showground performers, headed by 69-year-old Henrietta Wilson, a showground proprietor and one of a famous fairground family.

The Royals are missing from the 1901 census but it appears Mary Ann’s husband, Henry, died in the final months of 1903, and just two years later Mary Ann was married for a second time, in the register office in Portsmouth, to John Henry Laubender, a 28-year-old bachelor and professional tattooist. Mary Ann was then aged 45, so there was a significant age difference. Perhaps her new husband was also in the circus profession – men and women with extensive tattooing were also considered performers and freaks in those days.

The Laubenders were not married long as Mary Ann passed away on 9 March 1909 in Cardiff, reportedly after suffering a long and painful illness. The funeral of such a noteworthy woman caught the attention of the local press and, through their reports, we can learn a little more about Mary Ann’s ‘giant’ life:

From The Cardiff Times, 13 March 1909, p.1:

The death took place on Tuesday at 3, Caroline-street, Cardiff, of “Madamoiselle Royal," who was known in private life as Mrs J. H. Laubender. The deceased was born in Birmingham about 48 years ago, and for about 14 years was on exhibition as a giantess with the leading showmen in the kingdom, and she had not only travelled throughout Great Britain, but had toured America and visited leading Continental cities.
In 1900-1 the “Birmingham Giantess," as she was professionally known, was one of the most interesting side shows connected with the famous Barnum and Bailey's “Greatest on Earth."
In the course of an interesting testimonial given the giantess when she left the show the manager wrote:-- “There are Stout Ladies and Stout Ladies, but you surpass anything I have shown before in your line. --Signed) Charles Seymour Bailey." …
Some few months ago the giantess took up her residence at Cardiff with her husband, Mr J. H. Laubender, a skilful tattooist, to whose pretty artistic designs the famous “giantess” bore tribute, having been tattooed practically all over the body.

From the Evening Express, 12 March 1909, p.4

Mary Ann Laubender, Evening Express, 12 March 1909
Remarkable Funeral in Cardiff
The funeral of the lady professionally known as "Mademoiselle Royal," described as the biggest woman in the world, weighing upwards of 32 stone, whose death occurred on Tuesday, and whose remarkable career was described in our columns on Wednesday, took place on Thursday afternoon, thousands of townspeople and others witnessing the procession as it left the residence of the deceased, No. 3, Caroline-street, and wended its way to the New Cemetery, where the interment took place. The coffin was of extraordinary dimensions, probably the largest ever seen in Cardiff. It was six and a half feet in length, three feet in breadth, and nearly two feet in depth, and the weight of the coffin and body – which were carried out of the house to the funeral car by fully a dozen employees of Messrs. Bostock and Wombwell and Mr. John Lloyd, who acted as bearers – was nearly 6cwt.

The chief mourners were Mr. J. H. Laubender (husband of the deceased), Mr and Mrs. J. Priest, Mr. J. Lloyd, Mrs Cousins, Mrs Gass, and Mr. and Mrs. Scott, and amongst those who followed the remains to their last resting-place were a number of show-people from Bostock and Wombwell's Circus and other exhibitions in the town. The lid of the coffin was covered with handsome floral wreaths, placed thereon amongst others, by Mr Laubender, Mr. and Mrs Grimple, Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd, Mrs. Cousins. Mrs. Scott, Mrs. and Miss Gass, Mr. and Mrs. J. Priest, and Mrs. Cohen.

The officiating clergyman at the cemetery was the Rev. Gilbert Heaton, M.A., vicar of St. Mary's. To receive the coffin, which was lowered into its last resting-place by means of eight pairs of strong webs, the grave had to be made practically double its usual size. The deceased, who was a native of Birmingham, was about 48 years of age, and was described by Messrs. Barnum and Bailey, of whose great show she was one of the chief attractions for a considerable time, as the stoutest lady they had ever seen.

I have searched the grounds of Cathays Cemetery but, unfortunately, Mary Ann’s grave has no headstone. Let’s hope Cardiff Council will rectify that when they realise what a celebrity they have in their cemetery.

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