1877: Who is the Mütter Museum Giant?

The Mütter Museum of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, established in 1858 through a generous donation of items and money by Thomas Dent Mütter, possesses an astounding assortment of... well, bits of people and medical equipment. The collection was originally meant to be used as teaching devices for surgical students, hence its unusual nature. Since its establishment, the museum has opened its doors to the public so that those interested parties (with strong stomachs) could peruse the various bones, preserved organs and creatures, and antique medical equipment. It's an intriguing visit, I assure you.

        Undoubtedly one of the most spectacular items is the largest human skeleton on display in North America. Nicknamed the "American Giant" (or sometimes the "Kentucky Giant," after the state it was acquired from), the skeleton measures an impressive seven feet six inches in height, and is displayed alongside a normal height individual skeleton, as well as the skeleton of a dwarf named Mary Ashberry. But the most remarkable thing about the skeleton of the American Giant is not it's size; no, the most remarkable thing about it is how the museum came to own it... and the fact it's original user/owner is still unknown.

American Giant
The American Giant, displayed next to an average skeleton and a dwarf. [Larger version here.]

         The story, as it was told in 1898, is that in the year 1877 the body of a giant was offered up for sale in Kentucky; it was an unusual situation that greatly interested Professor Joseph Leidy -- associated with the Mütter Museum at the time -- when he was informed of it by Professor A.E. Foote. There was one rather large stipulation on the sale, however: no questions could be asked that might lead to the identification of the body. Despite this rather dubious requirement, arrangements were made to purchase the body, and it was reduced to skeleton and mounted for display... and there appears to have been no effort made by any of the gentlemen involved in this deal to ever identify whose body, exactly, they had purchased. Though this may all sound a bit morally shady, there was already a long history of medical men resorting to questionable ways to obtain unusual specimens that could not be retrieved otherwise (which generally means the family said 'no' when asked).

        Surprising though it may sound, 100 plus years later and still no one knows who the Mütter giant was... which is saying something when you consider how few people were over seven feet and six inches tall in the 1870's!

What We Know

        Most of what is now known of the giant skeleton, including how the museum came to possess it, was published in 1898 as part of an article by Guy Hinsdale. The article mainly explored the relatively recent discovery of the connection between the pituitary gland and gigantism in humans, with a comparison of the known features of various giant skeletons to catalog visible physical effects that could be associated with this newly discovered disorder. Clearly, though, a secondary reason was so that the known facts of the American Giant could be shared with others in the medical community interested in giants, perhaps with the hope that some correspondent would know who the skeleton was in life. As far as I know, no one ever contacted Hinsdale or the magazine with further information on the skeleton's identity.

American GiantPhotos from the 1898 article [larger version here]

        Hinsdale stated his belief that the owner of the skeleton was around twenty-two to twenty-four years old at death. The bones had appeared to have reached their full development, though Hinsdale also stated that the epiphyseal junctions were still plainly visible... and since these junctions are where the bone grows, and are not clearly visible in adults, it's possible that the American Giant would have grown more had he lived longer (the placard now on display with the skeleton in the museum identifies the gender as male). The skeleton measured seven feet six inches at the time of Hinsdale's examination, and showed signs that the individual was developing agromegaly (excessive growth of hands, feet, and facial features). The skeleton has a pronounced curvature of the spine, and the rib-cage extends farther forward than it does side to side, both very unusual features; and Hinsdale was fairly sure that the giant was taller than seven feet six inches in life previous to the curvature of the spine.

        The placard currently displayed with the skeleton also adds in that radiographic study of the bones "shows very little evidence of biomechanical forces"... which means the individual had likely spent some time bedridden previous to death.

Current Investigations

        Modernly, a core group of giant enthusiasts are trying to identify the American Giant's original identity in the forum discussions of the website, The Tallest Man (link here). There are no clear candidates without a number of assumptions made for each... but given that the body was sold on a 'no questions asked' basis, theories that include body snatching and overseas theft start sounding entirely possible as explanations for why no questions were wanted. By the end of a long discussion and examination of evidence, the forum organizer settled on three favorite suspects:

  1. James Toller [1795-1818], aka "The Enyesbury Giant." Died age 23, was about 8'1.5" tall. Lived in Huntington, England, and was said to have been buried under the floorboards of a church; this church underwent renovation in the 1870's, so the theory is that his skeleton was stolen during the renovation and spirited overseas to be sold... which would be a good reason to tell buyers to ask no questions.
  2. John M. Baker [ca.1836~? (presumably ca.1861)], of Caldwell County, Kentucky, USA. The actual year of his death is unknown, but the last known newspaper record about him was printed in 1861. He was 7'8" tall in his boots, and relatively slim for his size (he only weighed 240lbs.) Baker may have died around the assumed age of the American Giant (22~24 years old), as that is about what Baker's age was when he was last mentioned in print. If he died around 1861, then he may have been exhumed to be sold in 1877... which could be body-snatching, which would be a good reason to tell buyers to ask no questions.
  3. "Roy", legendary giant inmate of the East Bethany-Genesee County Poorhouse in New York state, USA, now known as the Rolling Hills Asylum.

Of the three above, we can rule out "Roy" for the time being. Though I was able to determine that a Roy Crouse -- which is said to be the full name of the suspected giant -- was indeed a resident of the asylum, there is no actual proof yet that he was a giant in life. More importantly for this discussion, however, if Crouse is the correct "Roy" from Rolling Hills Asylum, the fact he was born in 1890 and died in 1942 means he was born too late to be the Mütter Museum's giant.

        Of course, it's always possible that the American Giant is a completely unknown giant, who lived quietly somewhere and was only exposed after his death by some profiteer... and until a definitive answer can be discovered, I'll bet there will always be people out there trying to find out the true identity of the tallest skeleton displayed in North America.

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