In these days of basketball players over 7 feet tall, perhaps Captain Martin Van Buren Bates' height of 7'8" and that of his wife Anna Swan Bates at 7' 11-1/2" might not be a surprise, but in the mid-1800s persons that tall were quite unusual.
Born on November 9, 1837 in Kentucky, Mr. Bates, known at one time as the "Kentucky Giant," was a Civil War-era American famed for his incredibly large size. Accounts of his remarkable growth vary, but all agree that he began a tremendous growth spurt at some time around the age of seven, and was over six feet tall and nearly 300 pounds by the time he was thirteen years old. This incredible growth reportedly so astonished his parents that they forbade him from doing chores around the house, fearing that his body would be too fragile.
His first occupation was as a schoolteacher, but upon the outbreak of the Civil War, he joined the Confederate Army as a private in the Fifth Kentucky Infantry, quickly rising to the rank of Captain. His ferocity in battle, aided by his imposing figure, made him legendary, with Union soldiers telling tales of a "Confederate giant who's as big as five men and fights like fifty".
Bates returned to Kentucky after the war, but no longer finding it to his liking, traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio where he joined the circus, exhibiting his enormous stature to curious onlookers. While on tour in Canada, he met the even taller Anna Swan who also joined the troupe. She and Martin got to know each other and were married while on a European tour in 1871 at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London. Queen Victoria herself gave them two extra-large diamond-studded gold watches as wedding presents.
Martin and his wife returned to Ohio in 1873 and settled down in Seville, in southern Medina County, where they built a house — oversized in many ways.
He explains the next few years in his autobiography: "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 Swift's traveler in the land of Brobdingnag."
After a few years on the farm, he and Anna joined W.W. Cole circus from 1878 through 1880. Upon their return to Seville, they led a life together full of ups and downs which Bates described as "one of almost uninterrupted joy."
Anna Bates passed away on August 5, 1888. Martin remarried in 1897, this time to a woman of normal stature, and lived a mostly peaceful and uneventful life until his death in 1919. The Bateses are buried in Mound Hill Cemetery in Seville, Ohio.
Much of this post is adapted from the website The Tallest Man