Martin Van Buren Bates, was a giant amongst men. Literally. Hailing from Letcher County, Kentucky he was born average size but when he reached the age of six a growth spurt ensued and by the time he was thirteen, he was 6’ tall and weighed over 200 pounds. As he neared adulthood he would reach the dizzying height of 7’ 9” and weighed in at 328 pounds. Some reports state his height as being closer to 8 feet. It was said his boots were so big it would’ve taken a full bushel of corn to fill just one.
Initially, Bates lived a fairly low profile life working as a school teacher and in 1861 joining the 5th Kentucky Infantry during the Civil War. It was during his time in the Infantry that he became a thing of legend. Union soldiers told tales of the “Confederate giant who’s as big as five men and fights like 50.” He eventually reached the rank of Captain and was wounded in battle, captured and imprisoned at Camp Chase in Ohio. Not surprisingly he managed to escape and continued his service. When the war ended Bates rethought his career path and decided to go in an entirely different direction. He joined the circus. He came to Cincinnati and settled in with the John Robinson circus as part of the cabinet of curiosities, a popular sideshow. He was billed as “The Kentucky River Giant.”
During a performance in Nova Scotia, Bates met his dream girl, who also happened to be a giant. Her name was Anna Swan.
She stood 7’5 1/2” tall. The pair instantly made a connection and began performing together, garnering even more interest as a couple than individuals. Having gotten to know each other traveling in the circus, the couple fell in love and on this very day in 1871 the two married in London.
June 17, 1871. It was quite an affair to behold as their wedding made international news, even Queen Victoria got in on the action supplying the bride with beautiful material for her wedding dress, including 100 yards of satin and 50 yards of lace. The Queen even gifted the colossal couple two extra-large diamond-studded gold watches for wedding gifts. Not long after the wedding, Anna would become pregnant. Sadly her first child, a little girl died at birth weighing a full 18 pounds. Since they were still touring in the United Kingdom when she gave birth, this stillborn childs body was donated to science.
With the misfortune of their infant daughters death, Anna and Martin returned to the United States settling in Seville, Ohio. They purchased 130 acres and built a massive home which was custom created for its giant occupants. The ceilings were a full fourteen feet high and doorways were extra tall and wide allowing easy passage for the colossal couple. Even the furniture was made to enormous specs. It was while living in their new home that Anna would become pregnant again. Unfortunately their second child suffered as well, dying just eleven hours after he was born. This male infant was buried at Mound Hill Cemetery in Seville. He had the distinction of receiving a posthumous award by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest newborn ever recorded, he weighed a full 23 pounds 9 ounces at birth and was just shy of 30 inches long, his feet were a full six inches. Anna fell ill during childbirth and never regained her health. She would pass away not long after, dying in 1888. Martin was devastated. He made funeral arrangements, however the ceremony had to be postponed as
the wrong size casket was delivered. Fortunately he was able to quickly remedy the situation and acquire a casket large enough to house his dear Anna for all eternity. All of this casket confusion worried Bates and prompted him to have a custom casket built for himself which he stored in his barn for years. Now that Anna was properly laid to rest Bates ordered a grand statue from Europe depicting his love.
This gargantuan monument is a full 18′ tall and adorns her gravesite in Seville to this day.
Martin would wait a full nine years before he remarried. His second wife, Annette LaVonne Weatherby, was average stature. They lived out their life quietly in a townhouse in Seville. Martin Van Buren Bates, “The Kentucky River Giant” would pass away on January 7, 1919 at 81 years old. He was laid to rest, in his custom built casket next to his beloved Anna and their record breaking baby boy.
Vigil, Vicki Blum (2007). Cemeteries of Northeast Ohio: Stones, Symbols & Stories. Cleveland, OH: Gray & Company
They Live in the House the Giants Built. The Cincinnati Post. April 17, 1948.
Now A Farmer. The Courier-Journal. Louisville, Kentucky. 5 March 1896. p. 6. via Newspapers.com