PHOTO BY STEVE SMITH, VISIONFIRE STUDIOS
Great grand nephew Dale Swan is humbled by the life and experience of his ancestor Anna Swan and believes there is much to learn from her legacy.
Acceptance, tolerance, and living well are lessons learned from the life of Anna Swan Bates, born on August 6, 1846, to Ann and Alexander Swan of Colchester county, Nova Scotia. She was one of thirteen children born to the Swans, who moved to New Annan, N.S., when Anna was young. She was the only one not of average size. At birth she weighed six kilograms (13 pounds), by the age of four she stood 1.4 meters (4’ 6”) and she would reach 2.4 meters (7’ 11”) by adulthood.
Now is the perfect time to revisit her story as a reminder to practice kindness and to move past judgments based on differences.
The story of Anna Swan is a story of perseverance, grace, and kindness. A young girl from a small village, she travelled the world, became well educated, and married the man she loved. Her romance with Martin von Buren Bates blossomed aboard the ship, City of Brussels, in 1871 while they were crossing the Atlantic to tour in Europe.
Described as “the Nova Scotian Giantess,” Anna was more than a woman of great height. The Anna Swan Museum in the Creamery Square Heritage Centre, Tatamagouche, displays artifacts from Anna’s 41 years and recounts the story of her life. Her great grand-nephew, Dale Swan, volunteers there, and speaks of her fondly. He reminds visitors that Anna wasn’t a “freak,” a term widely used during her life, but a person, a human being of great character. “A real lady,” he says.
Dale grew up in the same house as his paternal grandfather, Selden Swan, Anna’s nephew. Selden never met the giantess as she had passed before his birth but, being part of a family of storytellers, he knew of her. Dale enjoyed these oral histories and became even more interested in Anna when on a class trip in grade 12 he saw Anna’s shoe on display at the Citadel. Dale went on to become a teacher, something Anna had dreamt of for herself.
When Anna left her home with her customized furniture crafted by her father and the comfort of friends who accepted her differences to attend Normal School in Truro in 1861, to become a teacher, things were different. The furnishings in the average-sized home of her Aunt and the desks at school were uncomfortable. Being constantly questioned or mocked for her appearance, Anna chose to return to New Annan. Her parents encouraged tolerance and urged her to rise above the taunts. Her maternal Grandmother Graham, from Scotland, agreed, “Stand tall, lass and be proud of your highland ancestry.”
Anna didn’t let the hardships in Truro squelch her dreams. In 1862, she agreed to become part of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum on Broadway in New York, but not to be gawked at or to be the centre of amusement. Those things she’d already encountered. She went because it was good employment to the sum of $23 a week (equivalent to $598 in 2021) plus she was provided living quarters, custom clothes of the finest quality, shoes (size 16 ½), and a horse-drawn carriage, built to fit, so she could see the city. Anna was also provided with a tutor three hours a day so she could continue her studies. She loved literature, and as part of her performances she would give lectures, read poetry, play piano, and perform in plays. Her cheery disposition and many talents were appreciated by onlookers.
“Anna developed into a refined lady wholly devoid of the vulgarity of the ordinary show person,” said P.T. Barnum in a newspaper account (exact publication and date unknown). Anna made friendships among the members of the museum, never questioning their differences. An article in the local newspaper of Seville, Ohio, recounts Anna and her husband inviting many of these “curiosities,” as they were called by onlookers, to their home for the Christmas holidays. “The conjoined twins, Millie-Christine McKoy, with the stage name of the Two-Headed Nightingale because of their beautiful singing voices, were Anna’s best friends,” says Dale Swan.
When Anna toured the United Kingdom and Europe with Barnum, and later with the W. W. Coles Circus her pleasant demeanour created bonds. She met Queen Victoria on several occasions. Anna’s wedding dress, a present from the Queen, was fabricated from 100 metres of satin and 50 metres of lace.
Martin van Buren Bates, also a giant, and Anna were married in 1871 in London, England. In 1874 the couple returned to North America and settled in Seville, Ohio, building a home designed to accommodate their stature. But not without consideration for average-sized folks. Their dining room table had one end high enough for themselves, the other suitable for regular-sized guests.
Teaching Sunday School became one of Anna’s passions. The children loved to sit in her large lap as she read stories. A local newspaper recounts one Christmas, Anna hired a carpenter to build a giant shoe, reminiscent of the nursery rhyme, which she filled with gifts for the children.
Anna had two children of her own but unfortunately, both died in infancy. Yearning to understand her grand size, Anna saw many doctors during her life. Answers alluded her, but modern advances deduce her condition was due to a tumour on her pituitary gland. A condition that eventually led to the decline of Anna’s health. She died on August 5, 1888, the day before her forty-second birthday.
Although her life was cut short 133 years ago, Anna’s story is one that continues to be relevant today. A story Dale Swan continues to research, discovering new things. Anna loved being outdoors finding a freedom she didn’t experience inside. She found solace in the church and it helped her cope with being different. Through his research Dale also discovered falsehoods. A newspaper reporting details of a fire that broke out at the American Museum in New York, in July of 1865, claims Anna was rescued by a derrick and lowered to the ground amid enthusiastic applause. The fire did happen, but Dale found reliable accounts of those who saw Anna leaving the building down the stairwell with other members of the Museum carrying artifacts they hoped to save from the flames. There has been speculation that P.T. Barnum may be the one who fabricated the story as a publicity stunt.
Dale, now retired from teaching, speaks regularly with students from across Canada and the United States who are completing school projects featuring the history and Anna Swan. He maintains a Facebook Page relating details of Anna’s life, sharing his knowledge with other historians, and communicates often with members of the Seville Historical Society Museum in Seville, Ohio, where Martin and Anna once lived. “Oral histories and the process of finding sources and new-to-me stories is fascinating,” says Dale. “I feel that we have established a network of collecting and sharing. The story lives on!”
One thing that is not new, the life of Anna Swan Bates, a lady of virtue from Nova Scotia who dreamt of being a teacher, provides many lessons.