It was a remarkable ceremony - and not just because the bride and groom were both eight feet tall.
Queen Victoria had personally wished the couple well and given them the jewellery they now wore. The bride made her way up the aisle following the world's most famous singing Siamese twins, who then took a place in the front pew. Crowds of gawping strangers filled the rear of the church, jostling with newspaper reporters and society columnists for a better view. A mob of even rowdier spectators packed the central London square outside, where the police struggled to keep control.
Still, at least the Daily Telegraph was sympathetic. "A man may get used to being eight feet high," it told readers. "But to be eight feet high and to be stared at by a devout congregation of idlers on the occasion of marrying a lady who is eight feet high also is a trying conjunction of matters. However, Captain Bates got through his difficulties tolerably well" (1).
The scene of Captain Bates' ordeal was St Martin-in-the-Fields church in Trafalgar Square on June 17, 1871. Martin van Buren Bates and his bride-to-be Anna Swan had first met in New Jersey two years earlier, and been unexpectedly reunited in April 1871 while sailing from New York to Liverpool with HP Ingalls' small circus troupe. They were both famous attractions by that time, Anna having exhibited herself for nine years and Martin for about six. Ingalls' troupe was completed by Millie and Christine McKoy, a pair of harmonising Siamese twins who billed themselves as "Millie-Christine, the two-headed nightingale".
Martin and Anna, who barely knew each other before the ten-day voyage, were surprised to meet again on-board, as neither had known who else would be in the party when they joined. They began to spend a lot of time together, however, and by the time the ship docked at Liverpool on May 2, they were ready to announce their engagement. They'd each had several marriage proposals before, but always turned them down for fear that the suitors involved were really after the money and fame they'd earned in their sideshow careers. This time, it was different.
The troupe's three-year stay in Europe began with a week in Liverpool, where Martin and Anna stayed at the city's Washington Hotel. Anna's career had brought her to Liverpool before but it was Martin's first visit. His commission in the Confederate Army had given him an undeniable military bearing, and this fact did not escape the Liverpool Daily Courier. "He is probably the finest specimen of a giant that our degenerate modern days have witnessed," it said. "He is a handsome, well-proportioned young fellow, neither weak-kneed nor round-shouldered, as well set-up as any of Her Majesty's Foot Guards" (2). The Daily Post added that Martin's conversation was "that of a self-possessed and highly intelligent London gentlemen" (3).
The couple spent their first day in Liverpool riding round the city in a carriage to publicise the coming shows. Crowds gathered wherever they passed, and rumours began that they planned to marry. Everyone was delighted when they confirmed these plans two weeks later at a fashionable London reception, and Martin rented a London house for them at 45 Craven Street, next to the busy Charing Cross railway station.
At the end of May, Martin and Anna - by then billing themselves as "The Tallest Couple Alive" - gave their first public performance together at an unidentified London venue. This would have been far more refined than the vulgar carnival affair we might imagine today. Martin would read some poetry, Anna would play the piano, and then the couple might mingle with their paying guests, chatting politely and sipping tea. Sometimes, they would perform in short playlets written around their size. Evenings like this became a great success in London society, and it wasn't long before Buckingham Palace summoned Martin and Anna to appear before Queen Victoria herself.
Victoria - then nearing a decade of mourning for her beloved Albert - was captivated by the giant sweethearts' charm, and presented them each with a huge gold watch. These were about the size of a saucer, studded with diamonds, and said to be worth $1,000 apiece. She also gave Anna a diamond cluster ring and a wedding gown as gifts for the coming nuptials (4). Some accounts claim she used her Royal clout to ensure that St Martin's, the monarch's parish church, was made available on Martin and Anna's chosen date.
Booking a central London church for a Saturday wedding in June at less than six weeks' notice can't have been a simple matter, even in 1871, so perhaps this suggestion is less fanciful than it seems. All that would have been needed was for Victoria's staff to discretely make the Queen's wishes known.
The weather on the big day was dry, but with murky and overcast skies. Sunshine, the Telegraph reported, was "transitory and fitful". Martin arrived at the church around 10:45am, and found a large crowd already gathered there hoping to catch a glimpse of him or Anna as they arrived. He took his place at the altar, and Anna arrived a few minutes later. She was preceded up the aisle by Millie-Christine.
Ingalls gave Anna away at the altar, and the ceremony was conducted by Rev. Rupert Cochrane, a 6' 3" friend of Anna's Nova Scotia family, who happened to be preaching in London at the time. Martin wore Victoria's gold watch and Anna the diamond cluster ring. I assume the lace gown Anna wore must have been the one Victoria gave her too - surely the offer would have been impossible to refuse? - but I've yet to see any confirmation of that.
The rear pews of the church were full of curious spectators, creating what Harper's Bazaar sarcastically called "a reverential scene of whispering, giggling and climbing over pews" (5). The Telegraph was less sniffy, saying that "any disturbance was certainly not provoked by the group near the communion rails". Millie-Christine's arrival inevitably caused a bit of a fuss - Harper's mentions "a buzz of comment and much hilarity" - but the Telegraph's man noted that she, like everyone else in the wedding party, did her utmost to ensure the day did not turn into a circus.