Martin Van Buren Bates

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Bates in uniform next to a man of average height

Martin Van Buren Bates (November 9, 1837 – January 7, 1919), known as the "Kentucky Giant" among other nicknames, was a Civil War-era American famed for his incredibly large size.

Though born an infant of normal size into a family of normal-sized people in Letcher County, Kentucky, he is said to at one time have been 7 feet 11 inches (2.41 m) in height. The Guinness Book of World Records and other reputable sources have him listed at being 7 feet 7.5 inches (2.324 m) tall and weighing 387 pounds (175.54 kg).[citation needed]

Youth and growth[edit]

Accounts of his remarkable growth vary, but all sources agree that he began a tremendous growth spurt at some time around the age of six or seven, and was over seven feet (2.13 m) tall and nearly 300 pounds (136 kg) by the time he was fourteen years old. This incredible growth reportedly so astonished his parents that they forbade him from doing chores around the house, fearing that his body would be too fragile.

His first occupation was as a schoolteacher, but upon the outbreak of the Civil War, he joined the Confederate Army as a private in the 5th Kentucky Infantry in September 1861, rising to the rank of captain within short order. His ferocity in battle, aided by his imposing figure, made him legendary, with Union soldiers telling tales of a "Confederate giant who's as big as five men and fights like fifty". He was severely wounded in a battle around the Cumberland Gap area and also captured, although he later escaped.

Adulthood and marriage[edit]

The marriage of Martin van Buren to Anna Swan, 1871

He returned to Kentucky after the war, but found it embroiled in violent feuding between those who had supported the Union and those who had supported the Confederacy, so he sold his property and left, explaining, "I've seen enough bloodshed; I didn't want any more." He travelled to Cincinnati, and there joined the circus, exhibiting his enormous stature to curious onlookers. While the circus was on tour in Halifax, Canada, 7 foot 11 and a half inches (2.43m) tall Anna Haining Swan happened to visit, and the promoter, envisioning the success a pair of giants would have, hired her immediately. She and Martin soon got to know each other, and were married during an 1871 tour of the circus in Europe. The wedding, at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London, was abuzz with publicity, and thousands of people, drawn both by the uncommonness of the spectacle and the disarming good nature of the pair, tried to attend. Queen Victoria herself gave them two extra-large diamond-studded gold watches as wedding presents.

Martin and his wife returned to Ohio in 1872 and settled down in Seville. In May 1874, Anna gave birth to their eighteen-pound (8.2 kg) child, but it was born stillborn. To relieve their grief they took a trip to Europe again, this time not as part of the circus. They returned to Ohio shortly thereafter, and built a large house to accommodate themselves comfortably. He explains the next few years in his autobiography:

"While in Ohio, I purchased a farm in Seville, Medina County. It consisted of 130 acres [0.5 km²] of good land. I built a house upon it designed especially for our comfort. The ceilings have a height of fourteen feet [4.3 m], the doors are eight and one half feet [2.6 m] in height. The furniture was all built to order and to see our guests make use of it recalls most forcibly the good Dean Swift's traveler in the land of Brobdingnag.
Bates family grave, Seville, Ohio
"I had determined to become a farmer, so I stocked my farm with the best breeds of cattle, most of them being full-blooded and short horns. My draught horses are of the Norman breed. Carriage horses eighteen hands [1.83 m] high with a couple of Clydesdale mares constitute my home outfit. I am thus specific because I am continually asked as to these matters.
"My rest was not to last long, for yielding to the soliciations of managers, I consented to again travel. The seasons of 1878, 1879 and 1880 found us leading attractions of the W.W. Cole circus.
"While we have during these years been blessed with many things, affliction again visited us in the loss of a boy, born on the 19th day of January, 1879. He was 28 inches [711 mm] tall, weighed twenty-two pounds [10 kg] and was perfect in every respect. He looked at birth like an ordinary child of six months. With this exception our lot has been one of almost uninterrupted joy."

Final years[edit]

Anna Bates never fully regained her health, and she died on August 5, 1888. Martin ordered a statue of her from Europe for her grave, sold the oversized house, and moved into the town. In 1897 he remarried, this time to a woman of normal stature, Anna Laron Weatherby[1] and lived a mostly peaceful and uneventful life until his death in 1919 of nephritis.[2] The Bateses and their son are buried in Mound Hill Cemetery in Seville, Ohio.[3]


  1. ^ "Now a Farmer". The Courier-Journal. Louisville, Kentucky. 5 Mar 1896. p. 6. Retrieved 20 September 2015 – via 
  2. ^ They Live In The House The Giants Built The Cincinnati Post. April 17, 1948. Reprinted First National Bank Chronicle, Vol. 7, No. 2 – Winter 1996. Accessed 2008-7-8.
  3. ^ Vigil, Vicki Blum (2007). Cemeteries of Northeast Ohio: Stones, Symbols & Stories. Cleveland, OH: Gray & Company, Publishers. ISBN 978-1-59851-025-6

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