Fatty

9:28 AM

There is a great story to be found in the book “Upstream Metropolis,” one of the better histories of Omaha. It tells of Fatty Flynn, a 425-pound former circus performer who ran a saloon that catered to “visiting sports” -- people who wanted a quick game of cards between train rides.

The source of this story is “Omaha Memories” by Edward Francis Morearty, who gives more detail. In Morearty’s book, the proprietor is named Glynn, not Flynn, and he is said to have built a five-story building on Eleventh and Douglas Streets where he kept his saloon.

It’s a brief story, and tantalizing in its brevity. Omaha had a building built by a massive former circus clown that catered to traveling gamblers? The story is so entertaining that a local brewpub called Jobber’s Canyon, now closed, had a beer named Fatty Flynn, along with one named Underworld Anna, named after Anna Wilson, Omaha’s famed madame. Omahans love their colorful criminals -- goodness knows I do.

It’s a good thing, in a way, that Jobber’s Canyon is closed, as I have some bad news. Almost every single fact in the above story is wrong. Fatty Flynn was not a former circus clown. He did not build a five story saloon. And his name wasn’t Fatty Flynn. It wasn’t even Glynn.

His name was Robert Glenn, and just because Morearty misremember everything about him, and “Upstream Metropolis” repeated his errors, and added one of their own, doesn’t mean his story isn’t worth telling.

He was a large man, and, while his early nickname was Bob, he did eventually acquire the sobriquet Fatty. But he wasn’t a circus clown; he was the former deputy sheriff of Norfolk, Va., his home town. There he met a woman named Fannie Oates, a well-known burlesque actress, who, with her husband Col. James Oates, had a touring company of a musical called “The Black Crook” -- widely regarded as one of the first true musicals.

Glenn joined the company, touring with them to Canada and Australia. He eventually wound up in Omaha -- nobody has recorded how -- where he worked for a while as a hotel clerk, but, when he had the opportunity, purchased the Atlantic hotel saloon on 10th and Howard Street. For years was a saloon owner, including operating a saloon on 11th and Douglas -- a building that was mostly a liquor warehouse. Despite Mr. Morearty’s claims, there is no evidence Glenn owned or built the structure; instead, it was built by Stubendorf and Nestor, the liquor warehousers, according to an Omaha Bee story from 1884.

He was part of the early theater scene in Omaha; he briefly co-owned the People’s Theater, where he often appeared in roles that required a girthy comic actor. In the 1880s, he purchased a block of real estate on Eighth and Leavenworth, rehabilitated it, and lived off the profits from its rental, going into semi-retirement. He died of heart failure in October of 1894 at about the age of 60.

But there’s one detail I haven’t covered, and it’s something Morearty got right in his list of wrongs. Glenn was a sporting man. In his early career, he is associated with the Nugents, who eventually owned (and sometimes died at) the notorious Buckingham theater. Glenn co-owned the People’s Theater with a Nugent, and Glenn coproduced the first minstrel act in Omaha with a Nugent. But while the Nugent’s saloons-cum-theaters were notorious for violence, Glenn’s saloon goes unremarked upon in the crime pages.

He was, however, associated with the gambling community. His first appearance in the Omaha Bee, on June 18 of 1880, is in the following brief:

“A party principally composed of the sporting fraternity of the city, participated Wednesday evening in a pleasant trip to Florence, where they partook of spring chicken and other delicacies. ‘Fatty’ Glenn punished so much of the fowl that he is still crowing.”

Glenn also appears as a character in a pathetic Omaha Bee tale of a broken horse named Old Jim, who local gamblers had passed from one to the other as a raffle prize. The horse had originally been called White Jim and had been sold in 1874 by a trader named “Irish Mike,” who then sold the rest of his horses in Yankton, disappeared, and is thought to have been murdered.

The buyer of Jim was a trader named Sam Morgan, and after Irish Mike’s disappearance, Morgan had his own bad luck. He had a barn full of horses on Sixth Street, and all but one died of illness. The one that survived was Jim, so Morgan raffled him off, hoping to raise enough money to buy Christmas gifts for his children. Jim changed hands a few more times, winding up in the Buckingham, owned by the Nugents, who raffled him off to their performing staff. A ballet dancer won. She got drunk in celebration, and that night sold Jim to a deadbeat, who left him in a barn and refused to pay the debt. Jim was then won by a gambler who was up on his luck, sold when the man was down on his luck, and eventually made his was into Glenn's possession in July of ‘80.

The Bee picks up the story here: “‘Fatty’ had tickets printed for a New Year’s raffle. Old Jim by this time had become very popular. He was known far and near. Every one took a chance. On the night of the contest the wind was blowing a terrific gale and the snow was a foot deep. Old Jim was hitched at the back door. His whinneys could be heard long and frequently. Fatty took down his banjo and played a juba. The boys sifted for a few minutes, when it was announced that Old Jim was once more to be raffled off. Policeman Morris Sullivan won him. It is unnecessary to state that the drinks flowed freely.”

Newspapers talked less about Glenn's gambling than his weight, which, at over 400 pounds, was a subject of fun -- something he himself seemed to encourage (his humor about the subject is often commented upon), but seems cruel nowadays. In 1889, the World-Herald ran an entire humor story called “The Obese Men of Omaha,” telling tales of their largeness, and they begin with Glenn:

“Of all the Omaha men who waddles and shakes the earth, Fatty Glenn is probably the most picturesque. It is related of this remarkable man that when in Chicago not long ago he observed a machine in the reading rooms of the Young Men’s Christian Association, at the top of which was this legend:

“‘Drop a nickel in the slot and ascertain your exact weight.’

“Mr. Glenn lifted himself up on the scale and dropped a nickel into the slot. The indicator gave a distressed sort of quiver and then remained hopelessly in its original place. ‘What’s the matter with this arrangement?’ inquired Mr. Glenn. ‘Is this a new bunco game? Have I been sold again?’

“‘The scale’s discouraged,’ answered the superintendent of the Young Men’s Christian Association; ‘Try a quarter.’”

About the author

Max Sparber is a playwright and historian who lives in Omaha, Nebraska.