Martin Van Buren Bates, sometimes referred to as “Baby Bates,” the “Letcher County Giant,” or the “Kentucky Giant,” was a legitimate Appalachian folk hero. During his lifetime, he was known throughout America and Europe for his impressive stature and his various exploits. He was literally a “giant among men.”
Martin Van Buren Bates was born in Letcher County, Kentucky, on November 9, 1845, the son of John Wallis and Sara Waltrop Bates. At birth, Martin was a normal sized infant, the son of normal sized parents, and the brother of normal sized siblings. So it was quite a surprise when he grew up to become famous as the “Kentucky Giant” and one of the more interesting characters to emerge from Appalachia.
Bates began his amazing growth by age nine, at which time he reportedly weighed 300 pounds and was six feet tall. His mother forbade him to do any work, fearing his growth had made his body too fragile. Nevertheless, his amazing growth continued.
By the time he reached adulthood, Martin was unquestionably a giant. Some sources claim he was 7 feet 11 inches tall, although the Guinness Book of World Records places him at 7 feet 9 inches and 470 pounds. Either way, Bates was undeniably an imposing figure in nineteenth century America (and today, for that matter).
The Giant’s adult life began normally enough. He decided to become a teacher, an occupation he held until the outbreak of the Civil War. His presence must have intimidated many potential class clowns. One of his former students would later recall:
I never did care about obeying a teacher, but that “Big Boy Bates” was a fellow none of us boys ever sassed. We didn’t dare.In spite of the fear he must have instilled in students, Bates was popular among his students, probably due to his well known kindness.
Bates’ life as a teacher, like so many others, was interrupted by the Civil War. He decided to enlist in the Confederate Army as a private. The Giant proved to be a fierce fighter and was soon promoted to Captain. During battles, he would emerge from bushes and startle Union troops, who immediately fled, fearing they were fighting an army of giants. Bates gained a measure of notoriety among them, as stories circulated among Yankees of a “Confederate giant” who was “as big as five men and fought like fifty.” He also became famous across the South for his bravery and fighting prowess.
Bates was eventually wounded in a battle neat Cumberland Gap and captured, although he did not remain in captivity for very long. How he escaped captivity is something of a mystery, as some sources claim he escaped and others contend that he was freed as part of a prisoner exchange.
When the war ended, Bates returned home to Letcher County and began reestablishing old friendships. Unfortunately, it was not the same county he had previously called home. Like most border states, Kentucky was fiercely divided by the Civil War. In Letcher County, feuds were beginning to ignite among former Unionists and Confederates. He also found that his home had been burned. Bates wanted no part of this. "I've seen enough bloodshed; I didn't want any more,” he said as he sold his property and quickly left Letcher County.
Bates ended up in Cincinnati. Realizing that his stature could be used for financial gain, he joined a circus and quickly became the star of the show. The circus traveled across North America, and while performing in Nova Scotia, Bates happened to meet a young woman named Anna Hannah Swan. Incredibly, she was even taller, standing at 8 feet 1 inch. The promoter (some say P.T. Barnum himself) saw a major marketing opportunity and promptly hired Miss Swan. Bates and Swan were then marketed as a pair of giants.
As fate would have it, Martin and Anna would fall in love. While touring Europe, the two were married in London in 1871. The marriage was such an event that it was reported that half of all London residents wanted to attend. Queen Victoria herself was present at the wedding, and gave the new couple a watch specifically sized to the new couple’s proportions. As they had in America, the couple were now celebrities across Europe.
After their marriage, the legend of the giant couple only grew. Mr. and Mrs. Bates were performers in the circus for many years and were highly regarded both for their physical size and their personal kindness. As the Arthur Dixon, writing in the Mountain Eagle would later recall of their travels in Europe with the circus
All the acts drew applause, but the overgrown man and woman with such warm smiles were the darlings of the people. Their magnetic personalities transcended all barriers of race, custom and language and endeared them to the spectators everywhere.After returning from Europe, the Bates couple established a home in Seville, Ohio. They attempted to start a family, but tragedy struck when their eighteen-pound child was stillborn in 1874. To deal with their grief, the Bates once again toured Europe. They returned to Seville by the late 1870s and again attempted to have a child, but again tragedy struck: their twenty-three pound (at birth) son died after living only eleven hours.
Life was not all tragedy for the Bates family; in 1881 the couple was part of a Barnum & Bailey parade on Broadway in New York. But the loss of her second child greatly hurt Anna, and she never recovered. She died in 1888 and was buried in the Mound Hill Cemetery in Seville. Eventually, Martin remarried in 1897, this time to a normal sized woman. The couple lived a quiet life in Seville until Martin Van Buren Bates died in 1919, and was laid to rest next to Anna.
(Note: “Baby” Bates is of particular interest to me, as I am a descendent of his sister, Martha. He is thus my 5th great-uncle).
See also my blog at Appalachian Scribe
Sources: The Mountain Eagle (Letcher County, KY) March 5, 1970; Martin Van Buren Bates chronology (Letcher Heritage News, Vol. 8, No. 1, March 1997); Wikipedia