Why haven’t I heard of her? At 7 feet and 11.5 inches, Anna Haining Bates (nee Swan) was 2.5 inches taller than the world’s tallest man, Angus MacAskill.
By the time she was twenty one, Anna was touring with P.T. Barnum’s traveling roadshows and she had married a fellow giant by the age of twenty-five. Their marriage drew an audience with Queen Victoria, who showered them with gifts. So why haven’t I heard about Anna the giantess?
I only discovered Anna’s story when my husband dragged me to the Angus MacAskill museum in Englishtown, Nova Scotia. The museum was simply a large one room, dilapidated house filled with pictures of Angus. My husband stood next to a life-size cardboard cutout while I proudly took his photo. As I wandered around the exhibit, I examined the common household items he owned; everything from dishes to an oversized chair and bed.
A small two-page article pasted on the back of a cabinet shared Anna Swan’s story and her first meeting with Angus. I read about her life and difficulties, and couldn’t stop asking myself why I had never heard of this giantess. Why didn’t she have a place in Canada’s history books like Angus? Angus wasn’t even Canadian born.
Anna was born in Nova Scotia, not far from where Angus and his family moved to when they emigrated from Scotland a few years after Angus’ birth in 1825. Anna was born twenty-one years after Angus and was arguably more famous. Angus lead a quiet life compared to Anna, who toured with P.T. Barnum’s roadshow and married a fellow giant she had met on the tour in 1871. To this day, Anna and her husband, Martin Van Buren Bates, remain the tallest couple in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Realizing women did not have the same status as men and faced discrimination throughout the nineteenth century, I questioned whether historians somehow just forgot to include Anna in the Canadian record book. Women didn’t really count if we didn’t have a voice at the table. Perspective shapes history as do those who record it.
Or maybe historians didn’t think Anna’s history was deserving of posterity? Did they decide her story wasn’t as gigantic as Angus MacAskill’s? It’s more likely that good old-fashioned, nineteenth century sexism explains why she was left out. History is never objective and always open to interpretation, especially if past historians didn’t consider women’s stories to be relevant.
How often have we heard that history is a living document that changes and evolves over time, as new information comes to light? As we share more women’s stories bolstered by increased freedoms and rights, I expect they will help to re-frame how history is told.
When I shared Dr. James Barry’s story in WomanScape – how Margaret Ann Bulkley hid her gender to become a doctor in the eighteenth century and fooled the military – it made sense that the British government wiped her accomplishments from the history books.
Anna’s story is, of course, much different. She didn’t perform a revolutionary cesarean delivery in 1826 without any medical training like Margaret did. But Anna’s story matters. It exemplifies how many women have been overlooked in history. This is rather ironic when you consider her nearly 8 foot stature!
While there are a few bits of information in the Tatamagouche Heritage Center (Anna’s hometown of Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia) and online, Anna’s story is lumped into the larger museum’s mandate to house local history and genealogy data. I imagine the museum is probably a small collection of Anna’s things or it contains only a brief written record. So does it matter that only people visiting Nova Scotia or stumbling on related subjects like Angus would ever know about Anna Swan?
Yes, it matters. Untold stories are exciting and powerful. They have the ability to change how we understand historical periods, cultures, laws and legacies. Taking a fresh look at old stories can help us fill in information gaps and introduce new narratives that foster discussion and inspire generations. In short, history informs us and influences how we see the world. It should evolve as we do.
For example, I had no idea Canadians could be ordered by Royal Command to appear before the Queen of England until I learned about Anna’s summons by Queen Victoria (see photo). The Queen was very interested in Anna and even presented her with a wedding dress as a gift of her affection. It’s easy to imagine how impressed the Queen would be by Anna. Anna’s freakish height made her the subject of ridicule and attention. The Queen knew well what it was like to live life under a microscope and tied to a life thrust upon her.
When Anna was born she weighed 18 pounds and grew to be 4 feet and 6 inches by the time she was four years old. There was no hiding, especially when she surpassed her 5 foot 4 father by the time she was six. No wonder her father started showing her at local fairs and exhibits.
Anna struggled with her celebrity and gigantism, needing special shoes for her feet and only wearing handmade clothes sewn by her mother. She was embarrassed about sitting on the floor for family dinners and needing to lean against the wall for back support because she was too big to sit in a regular chair.
When we learn about people who are different from ourselves and understand what it’s like to be ostracized, we develop empathy and compassion. History can teach us words like equity, equality, discrimination and justice. We can trace what happens when these words are twisted and people and nations suffer.
We can learn from Anna and the ridicule she experienced because of her size. What other job could she ever hope to do outside of the circus, with a 400 pound frame and her 8 toot 1 inch height? Anna captured the imagination of audiences when she toured North America as the tallest woman in the world. P.T. Barnum paired her a with a man named Commodore Nutt, who was less than three feet tall, just to heighten this attention.
Yet, Anna made friends with the other circus performers, including a handsome giant named Martin Van Buren Bates. She met him in 1869, and married him two years later. Her 7 foot 9 inch “Kentucky Giant” was slightly shorter than Anna and exactly the same height as Angus MacAskill.
As a child, my husband was interested in the science of gigantism and other physical abnormalities. He learned the difference between a natural giant like Angus MacAskill versus someone suffering from pituitary-induced gigantism by combing through history books and studying biology.
What kids aren’t thrilled by science and oversized athletes with hands like basketball giant Shaquille O’Neal? In fact, we look up to people who are larger than life. Angus had 13 inch hands, 44 inch wide shoulders, an 80 inch chest and size 18 feet to support his 425 pound weight.
When kids admire figures in history, they have an increased opportunity to learn from them. Angus was a gentle giant who was incredibly strong but humble, preferring the simple life of fishing and farming. When Anna and Martin were married in Trafalgar Square (London, England) in June of 1871, huge crowds clamored to get a glimpse of the couple.
The following year Anna and Martin had an 18 pound baby girl that died shortly after birth. Grief stricken, Anna and Martin went back on tour until they had a second child, a baby boy weighing 22 pounds at birth. But when he died as well, Anna and Martin were grief stricken and stopped touring.
My heart hurts when I think of Anna’s loss and the hardships she endured. And when I learned Anna returned to Nova Scotia, despite her sadness, and shared her wealth with the community, I imagine people never forget her strength and generosity. Anna’s life is a lesson in compassion and honor; one that is lost if people never know her story.
Traveling the world and discovering women like Anna helps me to realize how their contributions have been diminished. Girls lose the chance to celebrate stories about women and their female strength, compassion, success and happiness when these are overshadowed by stories predominantly centered around men.
History needs to be a balanced account to be accurate. While we are making progress to share more stories about women, it’s not enough. Canada will continue to celebrate October as Women’s History Month and hashtag #BecauseofHer. In the United States, we’ll celebrate Women’s History Month in March, especially International Women’s Day on March 8th. The United Nations officially kicked off International Women’s Day in 1975 and more than 100 countries continue to hold events recognizing women’s contributions since 2011.
But shouldn’t this history be told every day? We can share it with our families and within our communities. It should be written and experienced among all women and men. This Gorilla Girls poster from a recent Whitney Museum exhibit is great food for thought and something that should always be avoided.