Giants of the Colonial Era


I’ve been reading Reporting the Revolutionary War, by Tod Andrlik, reprinting newspapers, Colonial and British, when stuff was just happening. One paragraph from the Portsmouth New-Hampshire Gazette of July 20, 1764, read so:

A giant, 14 feet high (who was the same at nine years old) arrived the 14th ult at Dre[ can’t tell; it’s lost in the binding of the book ] from Trent, to make a shew of himself.

The next paragraph reports that an Ambassador discussed fishery stocks. Isn’t that a glorious treasure-trove of information about the world of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in the days before the Flood of ’42 swept its hyphen away and probably didn’t do the fishery stock any harm besides putting it up higher? Consider the article’s implications.

For one, the writer doesn’t mention the name of this giant. Why? Maybe they guessed a person who was fourteen feet high didn’t need any further identification, and that’s true in my circles. I know dozens of folks who’re over sixty feet high, but fourteen is a distinctive number and if there were any I knew, you’d just have to say “that person who’s fourteen feet high” and I’d know who you were talking about without any further bother. It’d probably go very well for me that way, really, since I’m not very strong on remembering names. I can’t remember a guy’s name I’ll just guess he’s probably a “David”. You’d be surprised how often it works. All the guys I met from 1996 through 1999 were named David, or are now anyway, and the pattern’s holding up well to today.

Here’s the next thing: our giant, David, wasn’t making a shew of himself in Portsmouth. Whatever might be going on in Portsmouth in the summer of 1764, watching giants was not drawing a paying crowd. David didn’t just have to go outside Portsmouth to earn a living, too: he had to leave Trent. Now we have a scene, somewhere near the village green of Trent, New Hampshire, in early July, as a farmer or smithy or tar-featherer or coopers-blunderbusser or something talks with his wife about David’s disappointing performance.

“Did you see, Martha, that poor David was trying to make a shew of himself by being fourteen feet tall in the public square.”

“What, again?”

“Aye,” he says, pausing to throw a rock at something he heard was a Stamp Tax collector (who in fact preferred collecting other Coercive Acts, finding that everyone was into Stamp Taxes in those days). “Fourteen feet tall and he thinks that’ll be an entertainment for us.”

“Land o’ goshen, Vermont, Henry, but isn’t that exactly the same thing he was trying to do when he was but nine years old?”

“To the inch and third-barleycorn, Martha,” cracks Henry as he indentures a servitude. “Not even a half a pottled king’s earlobe higher.”

“My, my. Someone should tell the lad, just being very tall isn’t going to get you an audience in these parts. Maybe he could attract a paying crowd in Dre[ mumbled into the folds ], but this is Trent. This is the big time.”

“We’ve got experience looking at people who are large. David has to get some kind of special advantage if he’s going to find work here.”

“Maybe he should learn to juggle or somesuch, then he can put on a proper shew.”

And around the corner of the farm tavern print-shop coffee house, a lone tear runs down David’s cheek and sees how far it is to drop to the ground. David considers finding some apples, but as Johnny Appleseed won’t be born until 1774, he makes off with a couple rocks and steals away to Dre[ something or other ], hoping he can refine his act and work his way back up to Trent, and maybe someday Portsmouth or even Worcester. He does, finally reaching the last town in 1839, as he’s ready to retire, which is just as well as he’s upstaged by the first giraffe brought to North America.

And this is why the marginalia of old newspapers is so grand: we get to see a past we’d never otherwise suspect. (PS, the United States won the Revolutionary War, sixteen feet to thirteen and a hog’s plunder in height.)