Articles & Stories


Martin Van Buren Bates:

The "Giant Of Letcher County"

In Novia Scotia Bates Met Miss Ann Swan, Who Stood One Inch Taller Than He. They Were Married In London, England.

In 1837 as data tells it, Martin Van Buren Bates became the 11th child of John W. and Sallie Bates, pioneer settlers in a simple log cabin home on the Henry Potter place of today in Letcher County, Kentucky. The ten other children were normal, but something unusual began to develop in Martin. He began to grow remarkably rapid, so much that his parents became alarmed. At 13 Martin became the real wonder of the countryside, and his wonderful anatomy became the talk far and near. His weight, at that time, was 300 pounds. The youth's forebears were only average in weight, and the phenomenon created consternation everywhere.
Martin grew on until his stature stood at seven feet and 11 inches and his weight at 525 pounds, which made him the world's largest man. Bates became well-educated for those days, though his opportunities were vague. He taught school before the War Between The States. When the tocsin of war was sounded over the country deep in turmoil, Bates volunteered his services to the Confederacy, serving under the command of Captain Enoch A. Webb (Dutch, an uncle of the writer) and he made a splendid soldier. So tense was the division among the people that brother was oft opposed by brother or father against son. The antagonistic spirit pervaded the country.
Criticized by all were the guerrilla bands that pillaged, murdered, and robbed. There were those in this country. They were driven, however, into Virginia. The bands, of course, opposed both the "Blue and the Gray." Early in the conflict Bates was chosen to drive back these marauders, though some of them were his neighbors. Bates at length became a captain in his division as he was brave and relentless. He and Captain Webb succeeded in driving them even further back into Virginia. The Crane's Nest section of the band became so rampant that Bates, with Captain Webb and Colonel Ben Caudill of Letcher County, Kentucky, took an army over there to suppress them. Locating their enemy in the dead of night a fire was hurriedly built. The flames spread upward, lighting a considerable distance and the soldiers put themselves in readiness. The guerillas swooped down to see about the conflagration, when hundreds of shots rang out. Twelve of the band fell, rolling down the mountainside. Twelve or 15 more were captured. The ruse worked well.
The war over, Bates decided to travel. He wanted to see the world. He and a companion set out on foot for Cincinnati, walking the entire distance. He wanted to join a circus and there he did so. He was to receive $100 a month, a good salary in those days. He toured the country from east to west. Later Bates joined Robinson's circus at a fancy $400 a month salary. The first trip of Robinson's was to Novia Scotia. This interested him greatly. In Novia Scotia the world's biggest man met, wooed, and won Miss Ann Swan. She stood one inch taller than Captain Bates. They were married. Fate had decreed that two of the world's largest people were to "get together" for life. The occasion of the wedding brought countrywide comment and occurred in London, England. Bates was still with Robinson's circus, likewise, Mrs. Bates became associated with it at a salary equal to that of her husband.
In the meantime, Queen Victoria of England met the big pair. She was charmed by them and presented to them each a mammoth gold watch. They cost more than $1000 and were presented by the Queen of England. They were held priceless and sacred.
Within a few years Captain Bates was mourning the death of his wife, who passed unexpectedly, although she had enjoyed the best of health.
Some time later while on a vacation in Cincinnati, he met Miss Anna LaVonne, and in the very beginning Bates became attached to her winning disposition, and they were married. His second wife was small in stature, "tipping the beam" at a little more than 100 pounds. Several years later Bates, though not far advanced in years, severed his connection with Robinson's show and retired to his home in Seville, Ohio. He died years later soon after he had entered his 80th year. Bates was revered and loved by all. The country mourned his passing.
Perhaps there will never be his equal in all the world.
Today there are many surviving relatives of the Kentucky giant in Letcher County, Kentucky, mainly through the Bates and Wright families. Dr. Wright, Seco; Booton Bates, Neon; Henry Bates, Thorton; and Jesse Bates, Jenkins being of the number.