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Gigantism has been viewed differently throughout recorded history, but starting around the 1800s those afflicted started earning something of a celebrity status. What follows are five famous cases.
Trijntje Keever (1616 – 1633)
Given the charming nickname of De Groote Meid (“The Big Girl” in English), Keever is believed to be the tallest female in recorded history. Her last measuring put her at 8 feet and 4 inches. However, at age nine she was already 6 feet and 7 inches, making her taller than most adults in Europe. Think about that for a second: she wasn't even a teenager and she could dunk over most of the NBA.
When she was younger her parents decided to cash in on God's interesting design by taking her to carnivals where people had to pay for the simple privilege of looking at her. While that may seem like a scam by today's sideshow standards (couldn't they have made her dance at least?), the gimmick seemed to work: at one point the royal family of Bohemia paid her a visit because they simply couldn't believe what they were hearing.
Unfortunately, Keevermania stopped running wild at age seventeen when she died of cancer. Her original shoes (which are still on display) measure at fourteen inches long. Based on an anonymous painting of Keever (above), it's been suggested that she may have suffered from acromegaly.
Zhan Shi Chai (1840(?) – 1893)
The finer details of Zhan Shi Chai's life are a bit of a mystery. The records of his birth place it at various dates, though the location of said birth is agreed to be Fuzhou, China. What's more, his exact height is unknown (we're guessing people liked to eyeball it back then), though it was claimed to be over 8 feet. Unsure of what to do with his life, he made the only real decision a giant could make in the 19th century: take it to London and make some serious bank.
Circus sideshows were very popular in London and one of the more common (and popular) attractions were giants. If you were taller than your average man you could simply stand on a stage and shout “look at me!” and collect some money. Zhan, wanting to make a career out of this sweet standing on stage gig, took his show across the globe, eventually netting five-hundred dollars a month in the United States and earning extensive education in several different countries. At one point he had learned ten different languages.
Bored with being a god among those of average height, Zhan settled down in in 1878 to open a tea house. Sadly, he died shortly after, only four months after the passing of his wife. His coffin is 8 feet and 4 inches long.
Anna Haining Bates (1846 – 1888)
Anna was only one of thirteen children. However, none of her twelve siblings weighed eighteen pounds at birth, so she had that going for her. Her growth was rapid at a young age; on her fourth birthday she was 4 feet 2 inches., on her sixth she was 5 feet 2 inches, on her eleventh she was 6 feet 1 inches, and by her fifteenth birthday she 7 feet 1inches. Two years later she reached her full height of 7 feet 5 ½ inches and would weight around three-hundred and fifty pounds.
Anna chose to tour in circuses. Her trademark bit was to run a tape measure around her waist, then to have a random woman from the audience do the same, then laugh at their puny waistline. Anna met her future husband and fellow giant Martin Van Buren Bates while he was touring Halifax. The promoter of that particular circus hired Anna on the spot simply after seeing her. The two would have two children together. One, which died only eleven hours after delivery, remains the largest baby born in recorded history.
Husband and wife retired from touring in 1880. Anna died in her sleep eight years later. When her husband requested a coffin from Cleveland, they assumed the measurements they received were a mistake and sent a standard sized coffin instead. After being assured by Martin that he knew his wife's measurements and yes, she actually existed, a proper coffin was sent three days later.
Charles Byrne (1761 – 1783)
The short life of Charles Byrne is marked with fame, fortune, and tragedy. Born in Ireland, local folklore states that the source of his tremendous height (alleged to be 8 feet 2 inches, though skeletal evidence puts him at 7feet 7 inches) was his conception, which took place on a haystack. While we can safely assume that science disagrees with this view, we're going to go with it because it makes us giggle.
Anyway, at age twenty-one Byrne sought out a fortune in, you guessed it, London. Byrne worked in Cox's Museum and soon became a celebrity of the town. He began to live a lavish lifestyle, living in a fully furnished apartment next to the museum with custom made furniture. Newspapers remarked on how approachable he was and dubbed him “the Irish Giant.”
However, Byrne may have taken to his success a little too well. He was known to drink a tad heavily, and one night someone found the balls to pickpocket a giant. Unfortunately, his wallet contained his life savings and he soon drank himself to death. On his deathbed he requested that he be buried at sea as a means of preventing someone from taking his skeleton. Reports at the time indicate that several surgeons surrounded his apartment, waiting for him to croak so they could do just that. His skeleton was ultimately sold.
Jane Bunford (1895 – 1922)
Jane's story is like an incredibly sad onion with ever tragic layers. If you were hoping to have some laughs at the expense of tall people, this may be the part of the ride where you should get off.
First, it should be noted that no photographs of Jane while she was living have surfaced because she was never a celebrity like previous entries. However, photographs of her skeleton exist, which we'll talk about in a moment.
At the age of eleven Jane fell off of her bicycle and hit her head on the pavement. This accident would change her life by permanently damaging her pituitary gland and forcing it to release growth hormones at an uncontrolled rate. By her thirteenth birthday she was over 6 feet tall. She had to be pulled from public school because it was becoming difficult for her to find chairs and desks and the children were mocking her constantly.
When it became apparent that the growth wouldn't stop Jane refused to cash in on her height. Though there were many offers made for appearances (and at least one offer for her hair, which was over 8 feet long at its peak), she instead lead a quiet life working at a Cadbury chocolate factory and babysitting neighborhood children.
When she died in 1922 she dwindled into relative obscurity. It wasn't until 1971 when the folks at Guinness World Book of Records accidentally discovered her skeleton on display at University of Birmingham. Though the University was reluctant to identify the skeleton, some crafty detective work identified it as Jane's. This caused a bit of controversy because she was supposed to have been buried. None of Jane's surviving family ever consented to the sale or donation of her skeleton, and the university has never said how it came about acquiring it. It wasn't until 2005 that the skeleton was given a proper burial with an unmarked grave.
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