The tallest tale from Big­gest Top

Stand­ing 7’11”, Anna Swan was star of Bar­num’s fa­mous cir­cus

The Sunday Post (Newcastle) - - NEWS - By Stephen Gal­lacher SGALLACHER@SUNDAYPOST.COM

She was billed as the Big­gest Mod­ern Woman Of The World. And now the fas­ci­nat­ing story of a Scot­tish gi­ant­ess – a star in PT Bar­num’s cir­cus – is to be made into a big-bud­get TV se­ries. It’s be­ing adapted by the mak­ers of BBC3 se­ries Or­phan Black from a novel about the life of 7 feet 11 inches tall Anna Swan. The se­ries fol­lows the bigscreen suc­cess of The Great­est Show­man, the hit mu­si­cal about the life of cir­cus pro­mo­tor PT Bar­num. The se­ries is be­ing adapted from a book called by Cana­dian writer Su­san Swan that tells the story of how Anna be­came more than just a sideshow ex­hibit – she was also a highly ed­u­cated and el­e­gant Vic­to­rian lady who longed to start a fam­ily. “Anna was called the Big­gest Mod­ern Woman, as she re­ally was a mod­ern woman. She was one of the first ca­reer women, who tried to have it all – a job and a fam­ily,” ex­plained Su­san. “Her mother and fa­ther came to Nova Sco­tia from Dum­fries in the 1830s, and Anna was born in 1846. “She died in 1888 and in that time had quite a life for some­one who didn’t live very long.” It was a life that took Anna from poverty in the small town where her par­ents em­i­grated, to the New York with PT Bar­num, and then around the royal courts of Europe. “She was a real show­busi­ness suc­cess,” added Su­san. “When she was a child, she had to sit on the floor while she and her sib­lings ate their crowdie, so her head would be level with theirs. “By the time she was an adult she weighed 418lbs, and it was said that when she en­tered the room, the sweep of her Vic­to­rian skirts could sweep a man off his chair.” Anna’s ex­tra­or­di­nary growth came from a tu­mour in her pi­tu­itary gland and was tall even as a child. Her height made her well-known in her neigh­bour­hood and caught the at­ten­tion of the great­est show­man him­self – Phineas T Bar­num. “Bar­num wanted her for his show but Anna’s par­ents were good Scot­tish Pres­by­te­ri­ans and they thought he was ba­si­cally the Devil,” said Su­san. “She in­stead went to teacher’s col­lege but that didn’t work as chil­dren fol­lowed her home from school to poke fun at her. “Bar­num’s of­fer was re­con­sid­ered

‘ Anna was a mod­ern woman who tried to have it all

and she went down to New York to ex­hibit at his Amer­i­can mu­seum on Broad­way.” Bar­num found Anna to be in­tel­li­gent and re­port­edly treated her with re­spect – some­thing not all of the so-called “freaks” he em­ployed en­joyed. Anna vis­ited Great Bri­tain, and along with vis­its to Glas­gow and Ed­in­burgh, re­turned to her par­ents’ home in Dum­fries, and the Dal­swin­ton es­tate where her grand­fa­ther had worked. She met Martin Van Buren Bates, called the Ken­tucky Gi­ant, who was only four inches shorter than Anna. The pair mar­ried – re­ceiv­ing wed­ding presents from Queen Victoria – and set­tled down. Anna had two chil­dren but both died at birth. The sec­ond was the largest new-born ever recorded, at 23 pounds 9 ounces. “Anna wanted to be the epit­ome of the Vic­to­rian lady. She wore gowns that had huge skirts, and hats,” said Su­san. “She longed to be con­sid­ered a woman like other women. That meant be­ing a lady and she was also in­ter­ested in books and books. She was smart and thought­ful, and ev­ery inch of her height a lady.” For decades Bar­num’s cir­cus has been con­demned as ex­ploita­tive of what he called “freaks”. The Great­est Show­man movie was crit­i­cised for cel­e­brat­ing a man who made a for­tune out of ex­hibit­ing peo­ple – like 25-inch tall dwarf Gen­eral Tom Thumb. The re­al­ity is more com­pli­cated, ac­cord­ing to cir­cus his­to­rian Pro­fes­sor Vanessa Toul­min of Sh­effield Univer­sity. “It’s true cer­tain peo­ple were ex­ploited dur­ing Bar­num’s era, es­pe­cially eth­nic mi­nori­ties,” she ex­plained. “How­ever Anna con­trolled her own fi­nances and made a lot of money out of her per­for­mances. “That wasn’t un­usual among the per­form­ers. Tom Thumb was prob­a­bly the high­est-paid per­former in the world at the time. “Anna is a pos­i­tive ex­am­ple of one of the 19th-Cen­tury per­form­ers, she dealt with her ca­reer very suc­cess­fully.” The money she earned was enough for Anna and Martin to build a huge house – com­plete with 14-foot tall ceil­ings and pro­por­tional fur­ni­ture – in Ohio, which be­came known as The House The Gi­ants Built. It was there she died at the age of only 41 – grav­ity wears gi­ants down, ac­cord­ing to Su­san, au­thor of the Big­gest Mod­ern Woman of the World. Anna said she had been given words of wis­dom from her Scot­tish grand­mother when it came to her height – “Stand tall, lass, and be proud of your High­land ances­try”– although the line may have been made up by the great pre­tender Bar­num. “When I was a teenager an old boyfriend had seen an ar­ti­cle about Anna Swan and he said that I was go­ing to grow into her and go to join the cir­cus,” said Su­san. “That was hor­ri­fy­ing to me, I was 6ft 2 at 12 years old and I never thought I would stop grow­ing. “I didn’t grow any more but years later when I was a young writer her name floated up in my head. She was the boo­gie-woman in the closet that I might have been. “I started to write a short story about her, which grew and grew. Now I’m look­ing for­ward to see­ing where the script goes.”

Bar­num and Bai­ley’s Great­est Show On Earth

Au­thor Su­san Swan

PT Bar­num, above, played by Hugh Jack­man in The Great­est Show­man, left

Anna Swan poses with a small boy

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