The Kentucky Giant
For years, every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like cemeteries to boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles (cemetery and/or tombstone enthusiasts) out there, I’m finally putting my photo library of interesting tombstones to good use.
As teenagers tend to do, Kentuckian Jim Porter hit a growth spurt in 1828 at the age of 17. But Jim Porter didn’t stop at a few inches. He didn’t even stop at a foot. For the next nine years, Porter would continue to add to his height—even allowing amazed locals to measure him weekly—until he finally stopped at 7 feet 8 inches. That’s two inches taller than Yao Ming, for reference.
It’s no surprise that people started calling him “Big Jim,” a local nickname that would soon give way to the nationwide moniker “The Kentucky Giant.” Though Porter did spend a year traveling with an acting troupe that performed Gulliver’s Travels, he mostly preferred to stick close to home, managing the tavern he owned in Louisville. In fact, he was at the tavern in 1842 when Charles Dickens stopped by to see the local legend, deeming him a “a light-house walking among lamp-posts” in American Notes. No less than P.T. Barnum read Dickens’ description, and couldn’t stop himself from trying to recruit Porter for his own business needs. Porter declined.
Porter was just 48 when he died in 1859, causing many to believe that his great height caused heart problems. But even death didn’t stop Porter’s admirers: Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville buried Porter in a hillside vault, leaving a door with an ornamental opening it in so people should see how large his 9-foot coffin was in comparison to a regular-sized one. It’s not there now, and hasn’t been for more than 100 years. After the vault fell into disrepair in the late 1800s, the door was removed and Porter’s grave was marked with a simple stone, stopping the spectator sport of coffin comparisons.
Big Jim was all but forgotten when a new Kentucky Giant stole his thunder: Martin Van Buren Bates of Lecher County, Kentucky, who was said to have been to 7 feet 9 inches to 7 feet 11 inches (accounts vary). Fun fact: Van Buren was married to Anna Swan, who was 7 feet 5 inches herself. They had a child who weighed 22 pounds at birth—so you can see why this larger-than-life couple overshadowed Porter.
To pay your respects to the original Kentucky Giant, however, stop by Cave Hill Cemetery the next time you’re in Louisville.
See all entries in our Grave Sightings series here.