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Living life large: Nova Scotia's 'tallest girl in the world' Anna Swan


TATAMAGOUCHE, N.S.—Anna Swan first took part in an exhibition in order to earn money for shoes, but she soon gained widespread fame as ‘the tallest girl in the world."

Anna Haining Swan was born Aug. 6, 1846, in New Annan. Her parents were of average height but she was a large baby and grew quickly. When she was four years old she was over four feet tall, when she was six she was 5-2, and by the time she was 10 she measured 6-1. At the age of 15 she was more than seven feet tall, and she finally stopped growing when she reached 7-1.

Ashley Sutherland, who’s been working in the Anna Swan Museum, stands next to a replica of the giantess’ dress. The dress was created for a Mermaid Theatre production.
Ashley Sutherland, who’s been working in the Anna Swan Museum, stands next to a replica of the giantess’ dress. The dress was created for a Mermaid Theatre production.

“Her grandmother, her mother’s mother, would tell her to stand tall and be proud,” said Dale Swan, who is her great grand-nephew and a volunteer at the Anna Swan Museum. “Throughout her life, she was always able to stand up for herself.

“She was known as kind and helpful, and she had a good sense of humour.”

It was reported that, when Anna seated herself on the end of a sofa and her weight caused the other end to lift, she laughed.

“Anna’s mother made her clothes, and her father made her some shoes, but they weren’t comfortable,’ said Dale. “The family heard about a cobbler in New Glasgow, who’d recently come from Scotland and could make comfortable shoes, but they were expensive. She took part in the exhibition in Halifax to get money for shoes.”

P.T. Barnum's offered her work as an attraction at the American Museum, in New York, with monthly salary of $1,000 and the chance to continue her education through private tutoring.

“Her experience attending Normal School, in Truro, convinced her to accept Barnum’s offer,” Dale related. “People would sometimes follow her around because they were curious."

In 1862 she became a star attraction, with Barnum promoting her as being 8-foot-1, and often contrasting her with Commodore George Washington Morrison Nutt, who was 29 inches tall and weighed 24 pounds.

“It was an opportunity to help her family,” Dale said. “She was offered wonderful clothes. Barnum even had a chesterfield built for her so she could set on one end and it wouldn’t tip. She would sometimes say no to him, and he treated her well, although he didn’t treat everyone well."

“Throughout her life, she was always able to stand up for herself." - Dale Swan, Anna's great grand-nephew and a volunteer at the Anna Swan Museum

Anna loved literature, singing, playing piano and acting. Lady MacBeth was a favourite role. There were some tableaux they put on that used coloured birds. Anna thought it was wrong to colour the birds and she wouldn’t take part in them.

In 1865, there was a fire at Barnum’s museum. There were flames in the stairway and Anna was too large to escape through a window. A section of wall around a window was broken away and 18 men lowered her by block and tackle. At the time, she weighed 394 pounds (she usually weighed about 350 pounds).

Dale Swan holds a ring created to show people the size of the one worn by Martin Van Buren Bates. It is a size 22.
Dale Swan holds a ring created to show people the size of the one worn by Martin Van Buren Bates. It is a size 22.

While on tour with Barnum’s show she met a former Confederate officer called Martin Van Buren Bates, who was 7-9 and known as "The Kentucky Giant." They were presented to Queen Victoria and, when they decided to marry, the Queen had a wedding dress made for Anna.

In May 1872 Anna gave birth to a girl, who weighed about 18 pounds and was stillborn.

In 1874, she and her husband bought 120 acres of land in Seville, Ohio and had a house and furniture made to suit them. The main part of the house had 14-foot high ceilings, with extra wide doors eight-and-a-half-feet tall. One part of the house was built of average size for servants and guests.

“Their bed was 10 feet long and their dining room table was higher at one end so they could dine comfortably with guests,” said Dale. “A piano was placed on 36” stilts for her.”
In January 1879, after a long and difficult labour, Anna gave birth to a boy who weighed almost 24 pounds, but he only lived 11 hours.

Anna and Martin toured with W.W. Cole during the following summer and spring, but then retired to their farm, where friends who had also been museum and circus attractions often visited.

“Anna attended the local Baptist Church and read the Bible regularly,” said Dale. “She also taught Sunday School. They had special seats put in the church for them.

“She didn’t approve of swearing, and would scold Martin for that. She didn’t approve of racing with the horse and buggy either.”

The couple had cattle and draft horses on their farm, and would sometimes take in an animal that was "retiring" from a circus.

“When circuses didn’t want them they sometimes just shoved them out of the train car,” said Dale. “Anna and Martin took in a retired monkey called Buttons. Buttons would jump on her shoulder and grab things from the wall and throw them at people.”

After struggling with a thyroid goitre and tuberculosis for some time, Anna died of heart failure, in her sleep, on Aug. 5, 1888.

“After her death Martin was lonely. He had truly loved Anna. He remarried, with the Baptist minister’s daughter becoming his wife. They lived in the house in Seville for a while but it didn’t suit her and he decided they should move to town. He sold the house in Seville and it eventually fell into disrepair. In 1948 it was torn down.

“One theory is that doors were hidden to prevent them from being used as firewood. Some people thought one should come to Nova Scotia, and the one we have came here on top of a long van.”

Anna and Martin are buried in Mound Hill Cemetery, Seville, Ohio.

The Anna Swan Museum, in Tatamagouche, doesn’t have regular open hours during the winter, but it’s open by appointment year-round. To arrange a visit, people can call 902-657-0330.

lynn.curwin@trurodaily.com


Anna Swan in her wedding dress.
Anna Swan in her wedding dress.

Anna's wedding dress

The dress Anna worse when she married Martin Van Buren Bates was a gift from Queen Victoria.

The gown was white satin, covered with orange blossom, followed by a train of lace. The bride’s jewelry included a diamond brooch given to her by Martin and the diamond cluster from Queen Victoria. (The Queen had also given Martin a gold watch, and Anna a gold watch and six foot chain.)

The wedding was held June 17, 1871, at St. Martin-In-The-Fields Church in Trafalgar Square, and the wedding party included the Siamese Twins, known as the Two Headed Nightingale (one sang soprano, the other contralto). The service was conducted by and Rev. Rupert Cochrane, a native of Halifax, Nova Scotia. He was a friend of Anna’s family and happened to be preaching in London at the time.

Years later, the dress was destroyed in a fire at Anna’s sister Eliza’s home, off of Robie Street in Truro. While fleeing the fire Eliza made an effort to save the dress, but she grabbed the wrong box.


Martin and Anna with a couple of people of average height.
Martin and Anna with a couple of people of average height.

Timeline

Aug. 6, 1846: Anna was born

1862: Anna went to New York to work for PT Barnum

July 13, 1865: She had to be rescued when The American Museum was destroyed by fire

May 29, 1871: She and Martin Van Buren Bates gave their first public performance together

June 17, 1871: Anna Swan and Martin Van Buren Bates were married

May 19, 1872: Anna gave birth to a girl, in London, England, who weighed 18 pounds and died at birth.

July 2, 1874: Martin and Anna returned to North America

1878: The couple left their home in Ohio for a short time to travel with the W.W. Cole Circus

Jan. 19, 1879: Anna gave birth to a son, who weighed 22 pounds and only lived 11 hours

Aug. 5, 1888: Anna died of heart failure

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