Scott County, Tennessee
FNB Chronicles

This page was created 06 Sep 2008


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The Giant of the Hills: Martin Van Buren Bates

(EDITORíS NOTE ó The following article concerning Civil War-era giant Martin Van Buren Bates, is reprinted from the Independent Heraldís August 5, 1993 issue. The article first appeared in the Letcher County (Ky.) Eagle. Bates is a relative of Bruce Bates of Scott County and George Rawlings of Mason, Ohio.)

By ARTHUR DIXON

We have intended for some time to write about the Letcher County Giant, MARTIN VAN BUREN BATES. But the different stories which we have seen contradict each other to some extent, so we have decided to use the one we found in the scrap book of Mrs. SAM COLLINS, Sr.:

A baby boy was born in Letcher County in 1837 who was to emblazon his name in history as one of the most unusual men who ever lived.

MARTIN VAN BUREN BATES was of normal size at birth, was the son of normal parents and his brothers and sisters were of average height and weight. Yet MARTIN BATES grew into a man seven feet and eleven inches tall, and for years his weight was 525 pounds. But his phenomenal physique does not by any means exhaust this amazing manís attributes and accomplishments. Although of peace loving nature, he was a courageous and fearless officer in the Civil War, gaining his commission for bravery on the battlefield. ~At a time when 75% of Americans lived out their careers within fifty miles of their homes, Captain BATES toured much of the world. He gained fame in the United States, Canada, England, and Europe.

These achievements would seem sufficient for any mortal in the slow-paced days of a century ago. But BATES had such a gregarious personality, such genuine liking for humanity, that he knew President GARFIELD, was a personal friend of President McKINLEY and was honored in London by Queen Victoria.

BATES acquired many nicknames, including "Baby" and Giant of the South, but his first nickname was given to him when he was eleven years of age and weighed 170 pounds. Seeing the astonishing dimensions of the boy on his eleventh birthday, his uncle said, "Thatís a mighty big boy, by heck."

MARTINís mother was deceived by his rapid elongation and came to the natural conclusion that be must be delicate. She forbade him to help with the household chores until she became convinced he was stronger than his older brothers.

While yet a young man BATES, journeyed to the county seat and took the examination for a school teacher, received his certificate and embarked on a teaching profession. "Well," said one of his former students many years later, "I never did care about obeying a teacher, but that

ĎBig Boy Batesí was a fellow none of us boys ever sassed! We didnít dare. Why, he was so big his voice just sort of rumbled like a bull bellowing." Fact of the matter is, though, all the students liked BATES.

In the Civil War BATES chose the cause of the "Rebels" and enlisted in the Confederate Army as a private. Once into the conflict, BATES forsook his habitual good nature and became a fierce and capable fighter. He soon won a battlefield promotion and became Captain before the end of the war. He engaged in battles to over much of the south and his fame spread among the "Yankees" who talked a great deal about "that Confederate Giant who was 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. After the Civil War Bates returned to his native Kentucky. He spent months renewing old friendships. But a restlessness was upon him. The hectic life he had known in combat made him reluctant to settle down to a commonplace and uneventful existence. Also he was sensitive enough to foresee the coming of the feuds which had their actual beginning in the hatreds engendered by the Civil War.

"I donít want any part of the trouble thatís coming to these hills," MARTIN BATES confided to his nephew, JOHN WRIGHT. "Iíve seen enough bloodshed. I didnít want any more."

When BATES left Kentucky after selling his property, he traveled to Cincinnati and joined a circus. He immediately became on of the stars of the show. Soon after he became a trooper, the circus took a preliminary swing into the eastern part of the United States, then departed for a tour of Canada. In Halifax, Nova Scotia, BATES figured in one of the strangest encounters that ever occurred outside the pages of a fairy story. A personable young woman visited the circus at Halifax. Her name was ANNA HANNON SWAN, but her meeting with BATES was one of the oddest coincidences on record. Incredibly she was eight feet tall, one inch taller than BATES. The elated circus manager knew a natural attraction when

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he saw one. He hired Miss SWAN, and when the circus left Canada for an extended stay in Europe the "giantess" was with the cast. Romance followed as the two "super people" found themselves drawn to each other.

This love affair was culminated in London when ANNA HANNON became Mrs. MARTIN VAN BUREN BATES.

Half of London tried to be present at the wedding. Queen VICTORIA found the "giants" as charming as the common people found them to be. She presented the newlyweds with a watch for each of them. At her order the watches had been made of a size to correspond with the proportions of the recipients. The watches were as large as ordinary saucers. Moreover, they were gold, studded with diamonds, and worth $1,000.00 each ó a fabulous sum in that day.

Fresh from this royal welcome in England, the BATES were the stellar attraction in every city the circus played in Europe. 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.

Back in the United States, Captain and Mrs. BATES remained with the circus for many years. They repeatedly criss-crossed the United States. The fame they had gained and their personal qualities combined to make them as popular in their own country as they were in Canada, England, and Europe. When the circus swung through Kentucky it was like "old home week" except that now the affable BATES had a wife to introduce to his many friends.

Quoting now from Mr. BATESí autobiography after they had toured England, Scotland and Ireland:

"At Glasgow, we exhibited at the Argoyle Rooms; after a most successful season we re-crossed the River Tay. This was before the bridge was completed, and returned to our London residence.

"It was on the 19th day of May, 1872, that our first child was born only to die at birth. Doctors CROSS and BUCKLAND were the physicians in charge. It was a girl weighing eighteen pounds and being twenty-seven inches tall. This loss affected us both, and by the advice of the doctors I took my wife upon the continent. There we traveled for pleasure, only giving receptions when requested to do so by Royal Command.

"After a short tour in Ireland we decided to return to America. We left England on the second day July, 1874, upon the City of Anwerp. We journeyed west for pleasure. While in Ohio, I purchased a farm in Seville, Medina County. It consisted of 130 acres of good land. I built a house upon it designed especially for our comfort. The ceilings have a height of fourteen feet, the doors are eight and one half feet in height. The furniture was all built to order and to see our guests make use of it recalls most forcibly the good DEAN SWIFTís traveler in the land of Brobdignag.

"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 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 tall, weighed twenty-two pounds 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."

In the supposed autobiography of Mr. BATES, he states he was born on November 9, 1845. The author of the first part of this letter states [he] was born in 1837. Take your choice. At any rate he was born at what is now Kona, Letcher County, Kentucky, the son of JOHN W. and SARAH BATES. He died and is buried at Seville, Ohio. His first wife died and he remarried a woman weighing 135 pounds.

Letcher Countians will not soon forget the Giant of the Hills, MARTIN VAN BUREN BATES.

FNB Chronicle, Vol. 7, No. 2 Ė Winter 1996
First National Bank
P.O. Box 4699
Oneida, TN 37841
(p5, 8)

These following pictures were not part of the original article but were later donated to this site courtesy of  John Burch, 10 Aug 2001.  John said, ". . . I was visiting [parents in Ohio] recently, and being a packrat, I went to several garage sales when there. These pictures were in an envelope of old photos that I found at one of the sales. I was very surprised, to say the least, at the size of these individuals, and knew that they must be of some historical significance. I got them for a very reasonable price, and was thrilled when I got home and found out their history from your site and others. I do believe that they must be quite rare, and am happy that you enjoyed them."

Martin Van Buren Bates Anna Hannon Bates

You can also find more information about Anna Hannon Swan at Anna Swan:  Nova Scotia's Remarkable Giantess part of Canda's Digital Collections website (thank you to Rebbekah Aaron who told me about this link)


This page was created by Timothy N. West and is copyrighted by him. All rights reserved.