Paper, Flesh and Bone: An Exploration of Giants’ Lives in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Britain

Figure 1: ‘Poster advertising the tallest man in the world, Henry Winkelmeier’, 19th century ephemera, Wellcome Collection, Wellcome Library, London,, last accessed 9th November 2018.

The eighteenth and nineteenth century saw an explosion in freak show performers and exhibitions. Anyone deemed ‘out of the ordinary’ had the potential to be displayed and exhibited, including giants. These giants performed to earn a living, yet whilst previous work by historians’ paint giants as passive performers who were exploited by entertainment managers and the medical profession both during their lives and after death, there is considerable archival material suggesting that whilst gigantism and acromegaly, (the diseases to which they owed their staggering height), did influence a giant’s decision to perform, their medical condition only had a negative impact after their death.

Using the rapidly changing and highly influential medium of advertising, giants and their showmen exaggerated the height of the giant and created a celebrity persona that appealed to audiences. Austrian giant Henry Winkelmeier, (1860-1887), performed frequently at the London Pavillion. One such performance, advertised on a poster in 1887, shows him dressed in a top hat and tails, towering over a ceremonial soldier.[1] He was also marketed as ‘The Tallest Man in the World.’[2]  This exaggeration of height via the visual comparison of a giant and a tall soldier that symbolised the health of the nation, and a declaration that he was in fact the tallest man to exist, demonstrate that those promoting giants used advertising to aggrandise their status. In addition, creating a demand for their performances by exaggerating a giant’s height and their popularity, giants and their showmen made a profit that then gave giants the autonomy to avoid financial hardship. The Swedish giant Daniel Cajanus, (1704-1749), informed the Daily Advertiser in 1744 that he was on the brink of death, despite only having a fever.[3] His subsequent performances were sold out- he used his illness to create a demand for his performance. Due to stunts such as this, Cajanus retired the same year, and reportedly spent 2,800 Netherland Antillean Guilders on lodgings in North Holland.[4]

giant 2.jpg
Figure 2: Giantess Anna Swan’s marriage to Captain Marten van Buren, 1871′, Wood engraving, 1871, Wellcome Collection, Wellcome Library, London,, last accessed 9th November 2018.

The performances that giants and their showmen advertised so meticulously not only made money for the performer, but also reinforced middle class values to the emerging working class. Clothing, positioning, and conduct on stage reflected the separate spheres theory dominant in Georgian and Victorian society – an ideology that limited women to domestic roles in the home and child-rearing, and men to work and public duty.  Giants presented their abnormal height in conjunction with Georgian and Victorian values such as the notions of femininity and masculinity, marriage and the nuclear family; the Nova Scotian giantess Anna Swan, (1846-1888) performed in traditional female Victorian dress, despite her height, whilst two giants, Mr and Mrs Patrick O’Brien performed with their son Brian O’Brien, highlighting the importance of marriage and family. The juxtaposition of the values and their height, suggested to the audience that no one was exempt from adhering to social norms.

giant 3.jpg
Figure 3: Giant Charles Byrne receiving guests. Etching by John Kay, 1794. Wellcome Collection, Wellcome Library, London,, last accessed 9th November 2018.

After a giant’s death, their body was monopolised by the medical profession and demanded to perform, albeit under different circumstances. Against a backdrop of teaching cadaver shortages and without the protection of the 1832 Anatomy Act, the bodies of eighteenth century giants were pursued, stolen and studied by the medical profession in search of a medical discovery. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Irish giant Charles Byrne (1761-1783). After his death he wished to be thrown into the sea to avoid dissection, yet Byrne’s friends were bribed by the physician John Hunter, who wanted his body for examination and display. After boiling his body to bones to examine the giant’s physiology, Byrne now resides in a glass case in the Hunterian museum. Previous to this, the body of giant Cornelius McGrath (1736-1760), was dissected in front of an audience at Trinity College Dublin. Therefore, whilst satisfying medical curiosity, their bodies were also displayed to the public, both at lectures and behind glass cases in museums.

A close study of many eighteenth and nineteenth century giants therefore reveals a much more complex world than previously acknowledged. With the help of advertising and show fees, giants were able to live an autonomous life, whilst still enforcing middle class values on their paying, middle class audience. Yet whilst they lived autonomous lives, this autonomy was stripped from them after their death. Giants did their best to avoid dissection and display, yet many ended up in the hands of the medical profession or museum curators.



[1] ‘Herr Winkelmeier, London Pavillion, Piccadilly,’ 1887, Evanion 245, Evanion Collection, The British Library.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Anon, ‘News’ The Daily Advertiser, 13th June, 1744.

[4] J. Bondeson, Freaks: The Pig Faced Lady of Manchester Square and Other Medical Marvels, (Great Britain; Tempus Publishing, 2006), pp. 145-147.


*All images used under the Creative Commons License (CC BY 4.0), taken from the Wellcome Collection’s free online image library.

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