Kentucky History and Genealogy Network, Inc.
Martin Van Buren Bates, The Kentucky Giant
The echoing sounds of the Rat-a-tat-tat of the drum bounces through the forest of an area that would later become Middlesboro Kentucky as we march to the beat in a perfect column, on our way to Cumberland Gap. Our perfect line of stiff-backed Union soldiers march along with their black-powder rifles harnessed across one shoulder, a bag of supplies hanging from the other. I am proud to be a part of it as we head forward to meet the Fifth Infantry and make our attempt to take back the Gap. The Fifth Infantry was organized from elements, in a large part, from southeastern Kentucky, some of them from Letcher County. One of those members is from Letcher and has the title of Captain in this Fifth Infantry and will be one of the major opponents in this battle. Many tales are circulated about his valor and strength shown on the battlefield and his part in this piece of history will prove him as being a hefty adversary in this battle soon to come. He is said to fight as well as fifty men combined and his stature is rumored to be as large as five men.
Our regiment is tense about the anticipated encounter with “The Kentucky Giant”, a name that has been pinned on Captain Martin Van Buren Bates. The rumors of his valor are not helping to unsettle the tension either, as stories fly among our soldiers. We have finally reached the approach to Cumberland Gap and begin to ascend the mountain as we approach our follies. All is quiet but we know this will change very swiftly as we come within the range of our opponent’s rifles. As we near the top of the mountain, the roar of confederate cannons and rifles begin their deadly bombardment, picking our soldiers off as they scurry for what cover is available. We fight while giving cover to some of our troops to crawl forward and they return the favor as the rest of us crawl forward, inching ever closer to the enemy. After what seemed like an eternity we have reached a point that the enemy can now be seen from a distance. I peer quickly from behind a big black oak I am hiding behind and I am immediately put in awe as I gaze upon the sight from the top of the mountain.The rebels can be seen occasionally as they stop to reload their rifles, but the Captain cannot be mistaken or overlooked.
He is truly a giant in all sense of the word, appearing to be at least eight feet tall or more, just from my vantage point. His side-arms look like small cannons and his sword appeared to be as tall as my chest. His shoulders are broad enough to seat four men comfortably. We continue to fire upon the rebels as they begin to fall, one by one. Their giant commander continues to stand going from one side of his regiment to the other, as if to show how impervious he was. Soon afterward I see ball hit the giant in the right shoulder and he shudders with the impact. Shortly afterwards he goes down to his knees to continue the fight. After some time the rebels realized they were losing and with their commander on the ground they felt all was lost. There was a hasty retreat underway after that point and we move up to capture what is left.
Our regiment hastily secured guns and starting taking in our prisoners and securing the area. It was then I got to gaze down on the fabled Giant. As I stare down at his huge frame I realize I am looking at a legend. Martin’s life is surrounded with mystique as it will continue to become even more throughout his later years. Although this battle will end up with Captain Bate’s surrender, his life will never again end in giving up and will be filled with notoriety his entire career as well as for his wife as well. Accounts of his and her life will be filled with intrigue and tales, some very much true and others as larger than life.
Martin Van Buren Bates was born in Kona, near Whitesburg in Letcher County, home of some of Kentucky’s notorious feuds. Even his birth-date is shrouded in mystery. His official birthday is November 9th, 1837, although some census records place it at 1845 or 1849. It was widely publicized that he joined the Civil War at the age of sixteen because of his large size, which would put his birth-date at 1845, a date that Martin claimed as his birth-date, (November 9th 1845) in all his interviews and public statements.
Captain Bates is described as being over seven feet and eleven inches tall and wearing a size nineteen boot. He weighed, at his peak, five-hundred twenty-five pounds. A hand-print traced around his hand and fingers was found later in life and measured ten inches from the tip of his middle finger to beginning of his wrist. Guinness World Records has Bates listed as seven feet tall and nine inches tall. He was born to normal-sized parents as well as growing up with normal-sized siblings but Martin very quickly outgrew all of them. Martin was, at the age of thirteen, over six feet tall and well over three-hundred pounds. His parents considered Martin as being frail and would not allow him to do anything for fear of hurting himself.
Martin was said, due to his overgrown size, to have joined the Confederate cause at the age of sixteen, fighting mainly along the Virginia border. As an officer in the war, Martin carried two 71-caliber pistols that were handmade for him by the Tredegar Iron Works of Richmond Virginia. He also sported a bayonet a full eighteen inches longer than most of his comrades. Martin rode a Percheron draft horse, a normal horse could not carry his weight. This would have been a very frightening sight to come upon in a battle.
Captain Bate’s military career would lead him into quite a few battles and make his name notable in the South and feared among his Union opponents. He was injured only once and captured only once. Even then he escaped while being transported. When the war was over Martin would come home to Letcher County hoping to find peace. He would witness more fighting at home in the form of feuds. Even more war and more killings.
Much of Kentucky, and especially southeastern Kentucky were divided somewhat before the war but become deeply divided in their causes after the war was over. This would result in an escalation of feuds and murders. Bates described to a neighbor “I have witnessed so much bloodshed and killings during the war that I can stand no more”. He decided to move away from Letcher County and this decision would lead to a life that most people only dream of.
Captain Bates moved from Letcher County to Cincinnati Ohio and joined a circus when he arrived. This would be the first of several circus acts he would be a part of. Martin’s bride-to-be would work for Barnum’s Museum starting in 1865 in New York and would remain until her contract ran out in 1870. Bates would work for several other circus groups until he met his bride-to-be, Anna Swann and married. An obituary for Bate’s brother stated, ” Captain Bates worked for Sellers Circus in 1885″. An article dated 1871 states, “Captain Bates and his soon-to-be-bride worked for Judge H. P. Ingalls on a three-year tour in England”. In 1879, articles show the two working for W. W. Coles Circus and Menageries on tour in the west. A census of 1880, shows Bates and his wife living in Medina County Ohio in their mansion. The household consisted of Bates and his wife, a farm hand, Bate’s nephew and a female servant.
Ann Swann was born in Nova Scotia, Canada in 1846 and came into the world with newspapers fluttering. She weighed eighteen pounds when she was born and was claimed to be one of the worlds largest newborn baby. She would be much like her future husband and growing taller than her mother by the time she was thirteen years old. By the time she was seventeen she stood a full seven-foot eleven inches, outgrowing her husband’s height by two inches although it was always advertised they were the same in height. Anna was many times mistaken for a grown-up because of her size. Everyone thought it was odd for a grown woman to be playing kid’s games. She was actually a child but only appeared grown-up. Anna wore her mother’s clothes while growing up.
At age seventeen, P. T. Barnum recruited Anna with a very lucrative contract. The contract would include all expenses paid for Anna, a weekly salary, trips paid for her parents so they could travel and see her as well paid schooling for Anna. Anna would stay with Barnum’s for five years and save her money in gold. Anna would later lose all of her gold in a devastating fire at the museum that almost cost Anna her life. She crawled from a window to keep from dying in the fire. When Anna’s contract ran out she would tour in Canada with a midget as a side feature. She would meet Bates soon afterwards.
Martin and Anna met at the home of a friend of Anna’s in 1870 and both were attracted to each other instantly. They had met at the home of General Winifred Scott just before Anna’s seven month English tour with the Barnum Circus. When Anna returned home, Judge Ingalls recruited her for a three-year tour in England. Martin would be with her on this show. In England the pair fell in love and became engaged. Their wedding was held at the St Martins-in-the-Field Church in England. Queen Victoria of England welcomed them to her home for wedding gifts.
Upon the arrival of the pair, the Queen presented them with gifts fitting to the giants. Martin was presented with a gold watch that was described as being as big as an alarm clock and chimed at each hour. Anna received a six-foot gold chain, a watch to match Martin’s and a seven-diamond ring. On June 17th, 1871, the couple were married. They were then presented as the largest married couple in the known world, making the pair an instant sensation.
From their tour and money saved, the couple bought a one-hundred thirty acre farm in Medina County Ohio, near Seville and began to build themselves a mansion. Martin is said to have personally directed the home’s construction. The home was built with twelve to fourteen feet ceilings both upstairs and downstairs as well. Regular sized rooms were built at standard size for the servant’s area. The doorknobs were placed at five feet from the floor and all the furniture and accommodations were built to size to fit the couple. The Bate’s often amused themselves when visitors would struggle to get into chairs or other furniture and appeared as though they were children climbing onto the furniture.
The family wagon was said to be pulled by two Clydesdale horses and the wheels on the wagon were about ten feet tall. People who met them on the roadways had to pull over to allow them to pass. When the Bates first attended church the pews were too small for them and they had to stand through the entire service. Martin would have a pew built for them that would accommodate them so they would be able to sit through the service.
The couple would have two children, a girl who was stillborn and a son who died shortly after birth. Anna would become sick after the death of her son and died afterwards. It was said she was in labor for thirty-six hours with her son. When Anna passed away in 1888, Martin ordered a casket to be sent that was designed to fit her size. Sadly a regular sized coffin was sent and one had to be re-ordered. Anna would have to be buried three days later. Because of this incident, Martin would order his own casket for himself and store it in the barn to prevent it from happening again.
After Anna’s death, Martin re-married in 1900 to Lavonne Weatherby, a daughter of a minister and a normal sized woman in stature. Lavonne wouldn’t live in the mansion but instead chose to live in the city. The Bate’s mansion was sold and would be torn down in the 1940’s. Martin died in 1919 and was buried in the casket he had previously ordered for himself. At his funeral it required twelve pallbearers to carry his immense load. Martin is buried beside Anna in Mound Hill Cemetery, Seville Ohio. Lavonna Bates died in 1940 and is buried in Pennsylvania.
Author, Marty Wyatt
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