Some people in history have larger-than-life personas that can’t be denied. This was true of Anna Haining Swan Bates, who in addition to being quite the personality was also pegged as “The Largest Woman in the World”.
1. She Was The Odd One Out
Anna Haining Bates was born on August 6, 1846, in Nova Scotia. Her parents were Ann Graham and Alexander Swan who were both immigrants from Scotland. Bates was a part of a very large family, as she was the third of 13 children—all of whom were average-sized. But of course, Bates was not one to blend in with the rest.
2. She Grew Rapidly
While some sources say Bates may have been an average size baby herself, others suggest she weighed 13 pounds right from the very start! By the age of four, most agree that she was over four feet tall and weighed more than 90 pounds. And by the time she reached the age of 15, she was seven feet tall—but this still wasn’t the end of her “growth spurt”.
3. She Had A Special Condition
Although it was never officially diagnosed, it was later determined that Anna Bates was born with gigantism, which occurs from a tumor in the pituitary gland, which in turn then releases excessive growth hormones. Individuals who live with gigantism grow very rapidly and typically have a significantly shorter lifespan.
But though Bates had been dealt a daunting hand, fate had an adventurous life in store for her.
4. They Had Her Back
Anna Bates’ family was quite sympathetic to their daughter’s unique condition. It’s reported that when she outgrew her elementary school desk, her father built a larger one by hand to accommodate her needs. But that wasn't all.
He also built her an extra-large bed to ensure that she stayed just as comfortable as everyone else in the home despite being so obviously different. Unfortunately, he couldn't protect her from the outside world.
5. She Became A Spectacle
As news spread of this little big girl, people in Nova Scotia began to visit her family’s farm in the hopes of catching a glimpse of her. Local newspapers began to publish stories about her, too, which only added to the increased interest. One paper even referred to her as an "infant giantess".
So, from an early age, Bates became a singular curiosity—and her family saw this as an important opportunity.
6. She Earned Her Keep
Bates’ family needed some financial support. As farmers, they were certainly no strangers to putting their other children to work, and there was no exception when it came to their larger-than-life daughter. Since Bates kept growing, she frequently required new clothing and shoes that were especially expensive.
To help obtain more funds, the family made the decision to put Bates to work by touring around local fairs as an attraction.
7. Her Family Stayed With Her
Unsurprisingly, there is definitely some controversy surrounding Bates’ touring career as a child. While her family understandably needed the money, some accused her loved ones of parading her around in an exploitative way.
Nonetheless, most historians agree that her family stayed genuinely caring and ensured that she was safe at all times by accompanying her on these tours and choosing family-friendly venues that spoke to people’s curiosity more than anything else.
8. She Tried To Be Normal
Bates wasn’t always just touring around in her youth. She often cared for her younger siblings and tried to occupy her time with reading and staying focused on other artistic interests. So, although her experience certainly wasn’t a common one, she did her best to still engage in all of the typical things that other children did, as well. What's more?
She also harbored a very normal dream—but sadly, it was doomed from the beginning.
9. Her Dreams Were Simple
Anna Bates really wanted to be a teacher, but while staying with an aunt and trying to obtain her education in a different city, she encountered new difficulties.
Bates found the classrooms physically constricting because of her size, and the people on the streets in this new place often gawked at her and made her feel especially uncomfortable. This treatment ended her teaching aspirations, but thankfully, greater things were in store for her soon.
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10. Her Grandmother Helped Her
In order to keep her spirits lifted and her self-esteem in check, Bates’ grandmother often offered her these words of wisdom in regard to her size: “stand tall and be proud of your Highland ancestry”.
This appeared to help Bates cope with being different from most people, as she worked towards making a new place for herself in the world. And boy, did she reach high.
11. She Seized The Opportunity
Bates’ height afforded her an education and career simultaneously. In 1862, she relocated again—this time to America—and she took on a position in the PT Barnum Museum as the “Nova Scotian Giantess”. There, she received tutoring and learned how to play the piano and sing.
The museum offered her jaw-dropping opportunities, many of which were unheard of at the time.
12. Her Deal Was Tight
Bates received $23 a week in gold—the equivalent of $500 today. She was also provided a chaperone and given the ability to earn extra income from pictures sold of her likeness. Remarkably for the time, her contract allowed her to keep the rights to those images.
This put her family’s minds at ease, as they initially had concerns about her joining Barnum given that they would no longer be involved in her exhibitions and around to protect her.
13. She Took The Stage
During her tenure at the Barnum Museum, Bates performed characters like Lady Macbeth and interacted with audiences in Q&A formats to detail her experiences as one of the tallest women known to man.
This experience was largely positive for her, as she got to control her narrative instead of merely being a “freak show” and she got to educate others about her life, so her first interest in teaching was lived out unexpectedly. Unfortunately, these happy times at Barnum were soon to end.
14. She Narrowly Escaped
In 1865, Bates found herself in the midst of a terrifying fire at Barnum’s Museum. The stairs were ablaze with flames and Bates—nearly 400 pounds at the time—was far too large to fit through a window.
Somehow or other, she received some help from 18 people who carried her, and she managed to escape. But the consequences of the blaze were still heart-wrenching.
15. She Had Nothing Left
During the fire at the museum, Bates lost everything. All of her possessions perished in the flames as since she was the last one to leave, she could not save anything from burning.
Interestingly, historians sometimes gloss over the fact that while Bates was indeed left behind because of her size, she also was a great hero and helped many others get out before her, which also contributed to her staying back and losing so much. In any case, this helping gene was definitely rooted within her, despite the cost.
16. She Loved To Connect
By most accounts, Anna Bates was both intelligent and kind. As she met people on tours who were also different somehow physically, she became fast friends and formed bonds with them very deeply. In fact, her magnetic personality allowed her to become friends with one of the most famous royals of the time.
17. She Made A Royal Friend
Bates became no stranger to traveling the globe on account of her size. She made the rounds all over Europe and the United States—only visiting her Nova Scotian birthplace on occasion. In 1863, she even befriended Queen Victoria while touring as an attraction in Europe and the two became very unlikely friends.
18. She Dodged Opportunists
Despite looking different than your average woman, Bates attracted many suitors. It’s said that she received numerous proposals, but based on her career as a performer, she chose to decline those offers. It was very difficult for her to ascertain when someone was being genuine versus when they just wanted a chance at some of her money.
But then she met a man who made her believe in true love.
19. An Unlikely Mate Found Her
While checking out a circus in Halifax, Bates couldn’t help but spot Martin Van Buren Bates—a fellow who was also over seven feet tall and pushing 500 pounds. Naturally, Bates was also spotted right back by Martin and a promoter, which led to a few interesting developments in both her career and her love life.
20. Here Comes Love
It really is a tale as old as time. Every prince needs his princess, and every giantess needs her giant. Bates married Martin in 1871 in London after the couple fell madly in love and began touring together in the circus.
It’s really through this very union that Bates…well became a "Bates". Before then, her surname had been "Swan". During her metamorphosis, she received quite a tremendous blessing, as well.
21. Her Love Story Intrigued The Queen
As mentioned, somehow along her travels, Bates became friends with Queen Victoria. In 1861, after the Queen lost her husband, Prince Albert, she fell into a deep state of depression and grieved severely for the rest of her life. But the queen's personal loss didn't diminish her appreciation for other people's love stories.
22. She Received A Remarkable Gift
In 1871, when word spread that Anna Bates had found love, Queen Victoria decided to do something special for her. She gifted the entertainer with a bridal gown that was made of 100 meters of satin and 50 meters of lace and embroidered orange blossoms. And the gifts didn’t stop there.
23. She Had An Awesome Ceremony
Rumor has it that Queen Victoria arranged for Bates’ wedding to take place at the Church of St. Martin-in-the Field’s. It’s not known for certain if that’s fully true, but the story remains an interesting piece of folklore surrounding the unlikely friendship between the two women.
Speculation aside, there were definitely still more presents in store for Bates, which were undeniably courtesy of the Queen.
24. She Got Bedazzled
Anna Bates returned to Buckingham Palace after receiving an invitation from Queen Victoria to visit and received a diamond cluster ring. The bridegroom also received a gold watch and chain. Together, the couple later went on to meet with the Queen at least twice more, plus they met some other royals along the way.
25. She Was A Giver
A year after marrying, Bates and her new husband purchased a home with lots of land in Seville, Ohio, which had unique height specifications to accommodate their incredible statures. The main part of the home had massive ceilings and doorways that were built to be especially wide for them.
However, the couple decided to ensure that the back part of their home was of average size in order to suit the needs of both servants and guests. But life wasn't always so smooth sailing.
26. Life On The Road Was Hard
Sometimes while traveling with different touring companies, the couple met the wrong promoters. On one occasion, they were even tossed out of a train car. There is little detail on why they were so unwelcome, but Bates seemed to recover from these rejections well. After all, she had no trouble finding love in other places.
27. She Took In Animals
Bates was a strong animal lover. She disapproved of horse racing, and on the farm, she made it a point to take in cattle and draft horses. With her husband, she also adopted animals that “retired” from the circus.
Family relatives of her continue to tell stories today about a particular time when she took in a monkey called Buttons, who was known for causing a ruckus with visitors.
28. She Grew and She Lost
In 1872, still a newlywed couple, Bates and her husband conceived their first child together—but it ended in tragedy. On May 19, 1872, a baby girl was born weighing 18 pounds. Sadly though, the girl did not survive childbirth. For Bates, the loss was incredible, and unfortunately, similar ones would strike her later in life.
29. Tragedy Struck Once More
Six years after the birth of her stillborn, Bates became pregnant with a son in 1878. On January 18, 1879, her water broke, and she reportedly lost six gallons of fluid. But she was in for an extremely rough labor. As the hours passed and the baby crowned, the doctor came to a chilling realization.
30. Her Baby Was Too Big
Anna Bates' baby was so big, the doctor couldn't fit his forceps around its head. To usher the child into the world, they place a bandage around its neck and pulled. He was a whopping 23 pounds, and Martin later wrote, "He looked at birth like an ordinary child of six months". But tragically, this was another doomed birth.
31. She Lost Her Babies
Motherhood eluded Anna Bates in a brutal way. After just 11 hours though, her baby boy passed. Posthumously, he received a Guinness World Record for being the largest newborn ever noted. This second loss Bates devastated her yet again and the consequences took an incredible toll on her.
32. She Couldn’t Recover
Having lost two children, Bates fell into a deep depression. She no longer wanted to tour and withdrew socially to cope with her pain. In many ways, this was the beginning of the end.
Although she attempted re-touring with the circus again a bit later on, she ultimately withdrew once again.
33. She Pursued A Quiet Life
After re-touring with the circus, Bates and her husband decided to live a quieter existence during the late 1870s. In fact, by the spring of 1880, Bates mostly spent her time solely on the farm that she owned with Martin, and they became more heavily involved with the Baptist Church.
34. How It Ended
In 1888, after having struggled with tuberculosis and thyroid issues, Bates suffered from heart failure during her sleep. This happened just one day before her 42nd birthday, so she sadly never woke up to see the marking of another year.
35. She Was Honored
After her passing, Bates’ husband erected a monument on her grave to honor her. A year later, he re-married and moved out of their Ohio home, so that his average-sized second wife could be more comfortable. However, when Martin passed on himself, he was buried next to Bates and his baby boy.
36. She Lives On
To this day, Seville, Ohio continues to remember Bates and her husband. In town, there is an exhibit dedicated to the couple with artifacts about their life together. At the Tatamagouche Creamery Square Heritage Centre in Halifax, there is also a museum dedicated specifically to the giantess, and some descendants of her relatives are still involved in curating and guiding tours for visitors.
37. A Little Backstory
Throughout her life, Bates was often presented and promoted as being more than eight feet tall. In all actuality, she stopped growing before getting quite that large, but she certainly came close (reports of her actual height vary).
However, to further sensationalize the attraction at shows, the exaggeration of her height often became necessary and lingered in newspapers despite the inaccuracy.
38. Her Legacy
Records obtained from The British Library show posters from the days when Bates was touring. She was advertised as “The Largest Woman in the World” and received top billing over Chang and Eng—the original Siamese twins, who were massive stars in London at the time.
Bates’ placement above them as headliners continues to serve as a reminder that she attracted crowds as large as she was.