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Martin Van Buren Bates was born on November 9, 1837 in Whitesburg, Letcher County, Kentucky, the twelfth and last child of John Wallis Bates Sr. and his second wife Sarah Waltrip. They must've been running short on names by the time that last kid was born, since he ended up named after the president at the time, Martin Van Buren. Some sources give his year of birth as 1845, but this seems highly unlikely, as he attained high military rank during the American Civil War, and the later birthdate would have made him a captain at age eighteen.

Born a healthy child of normal dimensions, Bates grew quickly to an unusually great size. Seven feet, two and a half inches seems to be his proper height, though circus promoters later billed him as 7-foot-11. Unlike many giants whose hormonal problems make them skinny, anemic and weak, Bates weighed over 400 pounds and was enormously strong.

Originally a schoolteacher by profession, he joined the Confederate Army as a private in the Fifth Kentucky Infantry in 1861 and was quickly promoted on the battlefield, attaining the rank of captain by 1863. According to the legend, he returned home that year to find his brother bayoneted to death by a group of locals. Infuriated, Bates took matters into his own hands, capturing eight men and hanging them from trees, leaving their corpses there to rot until the war's end.

Bates returned to combat, was captured by the Union army in Virginia and displayed as the "Kentucky Giant" in a prison camp. After the war ended in 1865, he traveled to Cincinnati to join the circus. While traveling and performing, he met Anna Swan, a seven foot, five inch Nova Scotian. Bates and Swan traveled to Europe with P.T. Barnum's circus, and were married in London in 1871, becoming the tallest married couple in history. Queen Victoria gave each of them a giant gold watch. They became international celebrities, touring much of the world.

Martin Bates and Anna Swan moved to a farm in Seville, Ohio, living in a house with a ten-foot high doorframe and fourteen-foot ceilings. Anna gave birth to two children in 1872 and 1879. Both were proportional to their giant parents, being the only cases in recorded history of this phenomenon, but died soon after birth. She died in 1886 of a heart attack. He then married a woman of normal size and lived out the remainder of his life quietly until his death by kidney failure in January 1919.

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