SWAN, ANNA HAINING (Bates), giantess; b. 7 Aug. 1846 at Mill Brook, N.S., one of 13 children of Alexander Swan and Ann Graham; m. 17 June 1871 Martin Van Buren Bates, known as the “Kentucky giant”; d. 5 Aug. 1888 at Seville, Ohio.
Anna Haining Swan’s father had emigrated from Dumfries, Scotland, to Nova Scotia; her mother was a Nova Scotian whose ancestors came from the Orkneys. Anna’s parents and the other children in the family were normal in size, as was Anna herself as a baby. When she was 5 years old, however, Anna, the “Infant Giantess,” was 4 feet 8 inches tall and weighed over 100 pounds; at 22 she was 7 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 350 pounds.
In 1862, when the great American showman P. T. Barnum heard about the Nova Scotian giantess, he sent an agent to New Annan, where she was then living, to bring the 16-year-old girl and her mother to New York. Besides the opportunity to earn $1,000 a month being exhibited at the American Museum on Broadway, Anna, who wanted more education, was pleased by Barnum’s offer to provide her with a private tutor for three hours daily for three years. She also studied voice and piano. Barnum advertised Anna Swan as the tallest girl in the world, 8 feet 1 inch, dressed her in a costume made from 100 yards of satin and 50 yards of lace, and contrasted her with Commodore George Washington Morrison Nutt, who was 29 inches tall and weighed 24 pounds. Anna was the only giantess in the world at that time, and she attracted large crowds to whom she enjoyed talking. Barnum wrote that she was “an intelligent and by no means ill-looking girl, and during the long period while she was in my employ she was visited by thousands of persons.”
Anna was nearly burned to death when Barnum’s museum was destroyed by fire on 13 July 1865. The stairs were in flames and she was too large to escape through a window, but employees of the museum found a loft derrick nearby, smashed the wall around a window on the third floor, and lowered the giantess by block and tackle with 18 men holding the end of the rope. She went home to New Annan to recuperate, but returned soon after to New York to work in Barnum’s new museum, which also burned in March 1868. That summer Anna visited her family and gave exhibitions in Nova Scotia before going back to the United States where she went on tour.
In 1871, when Anna Swan was crossing the Atlantic for a tour of Europe, she met Martin Van Buren Bates, the Kentucky giant who was advertised as 7 feet 8 inches tall and weighing 470 pounds, although he was actually 7 feet 2½ inches. A shipboard romance blossomed and they announced their engagement. They were married on 17 June at the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London. After a short honeymoon they returned to London where they gave command performances before Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales. Martin and Anna were advertised as “the largest married couple in the world” and travelled together in Europe for 14 months. They brought home many valuable gifts including a gold watch presented to Anna by Queen Victoria.
Bates bought a farm near Seville, Ohio, which he stocked with percheron horses and shorthorn cattle. He built a house with 14-foot ceilings, and doors 8½ feet high, and had furniture made to suit the two giants’ size. They travelled during the summer with the W. W. Cole Circus.
“The tallest couple on the globe” had two children. On 19 May 1872, in London, Anna Swan Bates had a daughter, who died at birth, said to have been 27 inches long and to have weighed about 18 pounds. On 18 Jan. 1879 she gave birth at her home in Seville to a son. He was 30 inches long and weighed 23 pounds 12 ounces; his chest measured 16 inches and his head 19 inches around, and each foot was 5½ inches long. Although two doctors were in attendance, the baby died after 11 hours.
When Anna Swan died of consumption in 1888 she left an estate valued at $40,000. Some of her clothing and jewels were distributed among her family, and descendants have allowed some articles to be displayed in the Sunrise Trail Museum at Tatamagouche, N.S., near her birthplace at Mill Brook.
[Information concerning Anna Swan Bates has been provided by Leonard Swan and R. L. Carruthers of the Sunrise Trail Museum (Tatamagouche, N.S.). The Swan family Bible is in the possession of Seldon Swan (Middleton, N.S.). p.r.b.]
Medina County Probate Court (Medina, Ohio), Record of deaths, no.3644, 10 June 1889. Halifax Herald, 7 June 1894. Illustrated London News, 24 June 1871. Novascotian, 24 March, 14 July 1851; 13 July 1871; 18 Aug. 1888. Presbyterian Witness (Halifax), 22 Feb. 1879. P. T. Barnum, Struggles and triumphs; or, forty years’ recollections of P. T. Barnum (New York, 1930), 414–15. P. R. Blakeley, Nova Scotia’s two remarkable giants (Windsor, N.S., 1970), 7–22. Irving Wallace, The fabulous showman; the life and times of P. T. Barnum (New York, 1959), 115, 141, 230–31, 269. P. R. Blakeley, “Anna Swan: Nova Scotia’s giantess,” Atlantic Advocate (Fredericton), 47 (1956–57), no.10: 35–38. Mary Burrows, “Anna Swan: Nova Scotia’s famed giantess,” Chatelaine (Montreal), 39 (1966), no.12: 38–39,91–95.