Jadon Gibson: The love giants

Published 4:05 pm Monday, February 6, 2023


Contributing columnist

Martin Van Buren Bates, the “Kentucky River Giant,” was a normal man in every respect except for his size. He stood a fraction under eight feet tall and weighed 525 pounds in his later years.

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Phineas (P.T.) Barnum’s popular museum was founded in the mid 1800s and exhibited wild and unusual animals. His shows also included unusually tall and short individuals such as Captain Martin Van Buren Bates and wife Anna Haining Swan and short people such as General Tom Thumb.

We’ve already introduced the nearly 8-foot tall Capt. Bates who earned his title for his efforts in the Civil War. Gen. Tom Thumb’s real name was Charles Stratton and was from Bridgeport Connecticut. His title of general was given to him by Barnum as the novelty title made him more marketable in drawing paying customers through the gates.

During a visit back home, “the Nova Scotia Giantess” visited a circus in Halifax.

She had learned about Martin Van Buren Bates, a giant from the United States (Kentucky), who was a star of the circus. Bates was single and of similar age and size. Anna never seemed to meet anyone such as the giant from Kentucky. The meeting put them on better than speaking terms. When the courtship developed between the two giants, Bates and Swan sailed with Judge Ingalls from New York in the spring of 1871 landing in Liverpool a week later.

Judge Ingalls’ and his prize giants chose not to appear in tent shows, opting instead to mingle with people who paid to attend receptions in which they appeared. They also made theatrical performances, reading before paying audiences. The two eight-footers were a “giant” success in London. They received a royal command to appear before Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace where the queen presented them with personal wedding gifts.

Judge Ingalls was putting the finishing touches on a European tour and Martin elected to join his world-traveling show at Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1870, billing him as “the Kentucky River Giant.” Bates enjoyed everywhere they performed and he was well received at every destination.

After two disastrous fires destroyed much of Barnum and Bailey ‘s exhibition center they decided to take the show to the people by railroad instead of rebuilding. It became famous as the Barnum and Bailey Circus.

Anna Swan also worked for Barnum and made circus appearances carrying General Tom Thumb and Commodore McNutt her midget friends one in each hand.

Martin Van Buren Bates, the Kentucky River Giant fell madly in love with Anna Haining Swan and she with him as they sailed to Europe. Surprisingly they announced before their arrival they would wed. Neither felt they would ever find anyone so ideally suited as they were. They were both nearly 8 eight feet tall.

Barnum wanted to hire Kentucky River giant Martin Van Buren so he could highlight him and Gen. Tom Thumb as the General and the Captain.

Midget Gen. Tom Thumb was already a Barnum employee. Later as the relationship between the giants Bates and Swan heated Barnum’s interest changed to hiring Martin Van Buren Bates and pairing him with the tallest woman in the world, Anna Haining Swan the Nova Scotia Giantess.

Anna’s parents suggested and Anna agreed that she should refuse Barnum’s initial offer, feeling she should continue with her education. He then offered a monthly salary of $1,000, a private tutor for three hours daily, vocal, acting and piano lessons. It was an enormous offer in 1862 and Anna and her parents accepted. If looked at today’s prices the value was astronomical.

P.T. Barnum advertised Anna as the tallest girl in the world at eight feet one inch in height in contrast to another Barnum employee Commodore McNutt, a midget who was 29 inches tall and weighed 24 pounds.

“Anna towers above all men when they stand up and over most women even when they are sitting down,” a British newspaper reported at the time. “She has an oval face and is softly spoken with a gentle voice.”

Anna was a friend of Commodore McNutt a midget who vied with “General” Tom Thumb for the affections of Miss Lavinia Warren, a diminutive beauty who joined Barnum’s troupe in the early 1860’s. Thumb was successful in winning Lavinia’s affections. Anna Swan, the eight foot giantess from Nova Scotia attended the wedding of General Tom and Lavinia towering over the midgets.

Anna enjoyed holding the two on her lap like a mother holding her two youngsters.

They were married on June 17, 1871, on Trafalgar Square in London. The wedding of the world’s largest couple was reported in newspapers around the globe with many publications dubbing them the “Love Giants.”

Anna wore a white satin gown, adorned with orange blossoms and a sparkling diamond ring presented to her by Queen Victoria. Martin’s attire included a dark suit and a huge watch and chain also compliments of the queen who attended the wedding. The bride was given away by Judge Ingalls.

Their carriage dragged a miscellaneous collection of old boots, shoes, cans and slippers as they departed the wedding site. They then left for a tour of Great Britain before returning to London.

“We received orders to give a private reception for the Prince of Wales,” Captain Bates wrote. “This was at Masonic Hall. The Prince was accompanied by his staff along with the Grand Duke of Russia and Prince John of Luxembourg.

We appeared before the Queen at Buckingham Palace and at Windsor.”

Christmas found the couple in Edinburgh, Scotland where they held a reading from the works of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns. Martin and Anna were intrigued by visits to several historic castles.

In 1872, Anna gave birth to a daughter who died at birth. The girl weighed about 18 pounds and was 27 inches long. Following the death of the baby the couple cut back on their touring schedule, making appearances only on royal command. They returned to the United States in 1874 at a time when the railroad industry was experiencing a rapid expansion into the western United States.

The W. W. Cole Circus organized an extensive tour and contracted the Love Giants, Martin Van Buren Bates and his wife Anna, as the feature attraction They were both approximately eight feet tall and well-proportioned for their height.

The western tour was very successful and it resulted in other shows railroading to the west in the years that followed. Anna became pregnant on her trip and the following year found Martin and Anna anxiously awaiting the arrival of a baby. Her earlier pregnancy and childbirth led to the birth of a giant daughter but she lived less than one day. It also took Anna’s stamina leaving her with little energy for months.

The Love Giants took time off from exhibitions during this pregnancy and thereafter.

Read more about the Love Giants next week. Jadon Gibson is a freelance writer from Harrogate. His writings are both historical and nostalgic in nature. Thanks to Lincoln Memorial University, Alice Lloyd College and the Museum of Appalachia for their assistance.