Martin Van Buren Bates (November 9, 1837 - January 7, 1919), known as the "Kentucky Giant" among other nicknames, was a Civil War era American famed for his incredibly large size.
Though born an infant of normal size into a family of normal-sized people in Letcher County, Kentucky, he is said to at one time have been 7 feet 11 inches (2.41 m) in height and between 475 and 525 pounds in weight, and was 7 feet 4 inches (2.24 m) and 380 pounds when he died.
Accounts of his remarkable growth vary, but all sources agree that he began a tremendous growth spurt at some time around the age of six or seven, and was over six feet tall and nearly 300 pounds by the time he was twelve or thirteen years old. This incredible growth reportedly so astonished his parents that they forbade him from doing chores around the house, fearful his body was 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 in September 1861, rising to the rank of Captain within short order. 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". He was captured in 1863, and was probably released as part of a prisoner exchange that year or the next (though some sources claim he escaped).
He returned to Kentucky after the war, but found it embroiled in violent feuding between those who had supported the Union and those who had supported the Confederacy, so sold his property and left, explaining, "I've seen enough bloodshed; I didn't want any more." He travelled to Cincinnati, and there joined the circus, exhibiting his enormous stature to curious onlookers. While the circus was on tour in Halifax, Canada, eight-foot tall Anna Hannon Swain happened to visit, and the promoter, envisioning the success a pair of giants would have, hired her immediately. She and Martin soon got to know each other, and were married during an 1871 tour of the circus in Europe. The wedding, in London, was abuzz with publicity, and thousands of people, drawn both by the uncommonness of the spectacle and the disarming good nature of the pair, tried to attend. Queen Victoria herself gave them as wedding presents two extra-large diamond-studded gold watches.
Martin and his wife returned to Ohio in 1872 and settled down in Seville, but in May 1874, their eighteen-pound child was born stillborn, and to relieve their grief they took a trip to Europe again, but this time not as part of the circus. They returned to Ohio again shortly thereafter, and built a large house to accommodate themselves comfortably. 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.
"I had determined to become a farmer, so I stocked my farm with the best breeds of cattle, most of them being full-blooded and short horns. My draught horses are of the Norman breed. Carriage horses eighteen hands high with a couple of Clydesdale mares constitute my home outfit. I am thus specific because I am continually asked as to these matters.
"My rest was not to last long, for yielding to the soliciations of managers, I consented to again travel. The seasons of 1878, 1879 and 1880 found us leading attractions of the W.W. Cole circus.
"While we have during these years been blessed with many things, affliction again visited us in the loss of a boy, born on the 19th day of January, 1879. He was 28 inches tall, weighed twenty-two pounds and was perfect in every respect. He looked at birth like an ordinary child of six months. With this exception our lot has been one of almost uninterrupted joy."
However, Anna never fully regained her health, and died on August 5, 1886. Martin ordered a statue of her from Europe for her grave, sold the oversized house, and moved into the town. In 1887 he remarried, this time to a woman of normal stature, and lived a mostly peaceful and uneventful life until his death in Seville of nephritis.