Martin Van Buren Bates, the Kentucky Giant

Today is the birthday of Martin Van Buren Bates, the Kentucky Giant (1837-1919). Normal at birth, he started in a-growin’ at around age 6. By the time he was 12, he was 6 foot tall and 300 pounds. Eventually, he was close to 8 feet tall, and 470 pounds, with a voice described as that of a “rumbling bullfrog”. He enlisted as a Confederate private in the War Between the States, rising rapidly to Captain as result of his “ferocity in battle”. After the war he joined a circus in Cincinnati, and began to tour. In Canada, he met the famous Anna Swan, of Barnum’s show. They were married in 1871. At various times they attempted to retire and live normal lives, building themselves a special over-sized house in which to do so. But they were lured back into the limelight for several seasons with W.W. Cole Circus 1877-1880. Swan died in 1888. Bates’ heart was broken, and he remained retired thereafter. More on Bates here. 

Jenny Lee Mitchell, a frequent friend and performer in the American Vaudeville Theatre is a direct descendant of Martin Van Buren Bates. Learn all about her here:

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.


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