WILTON – The story of Sylvia Hardy may seem like a tall tale and, in a way, it is.

A wee thing at birth – perhaps less than 4 pounds – Hardy swiftly grew into a legend.

A Currier & Ives print of Sylvia Hardy, The Maine Giantess Museum of the City of New York

Promoters insisted she was nearly 8 feet tall, though it appears she was actually at least half-a-foot shorter. The Lewiston Evening Journal declared in 1870 that she was 6 feet, 10 inches high – nowhere near a record, but still noteworthy, even today.

Regardless, Hardy reluctantly became an American icon, a woman from rural Maine who towered over her contemporaries in pre-Civil War America thanks to showman Phineas T. Barnum — once the country’s greatest huckster — who put her on display and called her the Maine Giantess.

Before long, Hardy had become famous, her name and image everywhere, a source of gossip and amazement in “all the principal cities of the Union” in the 1850s.

She was, as those with whom she traveled often put it, one of the wonders of the world.

ON DISPLAY AT BARNUM’S MUSEUM

P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York in the early 1850s. Barnum’s American Museum illustrated

Barnum’s American Museum on Broadway attracted crowds in New York for decades after its opening in 1841, pulling in nearly 38 million visitors, who each handed over a quarter to gain entry.

What they saw inside wowed most of them.

One visitor, R.L. Glisan, called Barnum “the prince of humbugs” in a journal he published years later, but Glisan admitted that he loved “the wonderful collection of natural curiosities” on display, including a flamingo, a snapping turtle supposedly found inside a large rock and the famed “Feejee Mermaid.”

The famed Feejee Mermaid display from P.T. Barnum’s American Museum survived the fire that destroyed most of the exhibits and wound up in, of all places, a Harvard University museum. Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, Harvard

The mermaid, he said, “looks like a woman and a fish combined” – a face and thorax up top and a fish below. “It is bogus, of course, being an artificial preparation, manufactured so skillfully as to deceive for a long time the public generally,” Glisan noted.

Glisan also mentioned seeing a giantess, but didn’t name her. It may have been Hardy, though a Quaker Giantess preceded her and one from Nova Scotia followed her.

An account of an 1855 museum visit by a writer for The Raftsman’s Journal in Clearfield, Pennsylvania, described what it was like to see Hardy on display.

He said that “every little while” in the museum, a man in a snuff-colored coat would come out with the tall woman and announce to the crowd, “This, ladies and gentlemen, is Miss Hardy.”

Hardy would at that point look demure, he said, drop a curtsy and make “a faint attempt to smile.”

The announcer would continue, declaring her “the celebrated giantess born in Maine. She is 22 years old and, in consequence of having been sick lately, weighs only a little over 300 pounds. She is over seven feet high and is altogether a fine specimen of a Down East belle.”

The reporter obviously disliked the spectacle.

Sneering at “this Maine wonder,” the story said, “we don’t think (it) was a master stroke on the part of Barnum to make her a feature of the exhibition. If one were disposed to give him credit for any unselfish object in thus collecting together a number of infantile specimens, this stalking monstrosity would forbid it, trotted out as she is.”

For Hardy, though, it was at least a living.

GROWING UP IN HARD TIMES IN WILTON

An 1856 biography of Sylvia Hardy featured a rendering of her on its cover.

Shortly after Hardy’s rise to fame, somebody who claimed to have known her for years wrote a short biography, “The Life of Sylvia Hardy, The Celebrated Maine Giantess,” published in Boston in 1856.

Its account of her life, while skimpy, at least has the advantage of almost comically florid language.

“She was born and educated among the mountains, where the turf is covered with rude beauty, rocks and wilderness piled in bold and inimitable shapes of savage grandeur, tinged with the hues of untold centuries, and over which awe-inspiring storms oft swept with thunder in their train,” the anonymous biographer wrote, or, more accurately, over-wrote.

There, in the tiny western Maine village of Wilton, the book declared, “on the very dividing line between civilization on the one hand and the dark and gloomy forests of the North on the other,” farmer John Hardy and his wife Jane had seven children.

The second of them was Sylvia, born on Aug. 17, 1824, moments before her brother Samuel, who died four months later, a common fate for infants in those days.

Hardy weighed somewhere between two and five pounds, depending on which story one chooses. Her parents were no more than average in their heights and weights, many sources say, and Hardy didn’t seem especially large as a child.

Her five sisters were “rather below than above the common stature,” one magazine account said.

Hardy’s biographer called her “uncommonly active, both physically and mentally” and reported that everyone found her kind-hearted and a hard worker.

Trouble came at age 7, however, when Hardy’s father suddenly died, leaving his wife with a large family of small children, whom she could not support on her own.

The youngsters were divvied up within the community, with Sylvia assigned to the family of a nearby lawyer. Five years later, he, too, was dead, forcing her to board with a succession of other families.

Eventually, her mother remarried and the Hardy children were gathered up under one roof again.

At age 12, Hardy suddenly began to grow “with a rapidity that startled her friends and alarmed her acquaintances,” her biographer said.

“At 13, she was tall; at 14, she was a novelty; at 15, she was truly a wonder,” the biography noted. And she just kept growing.

For nine years, she sprouted upward so quickly that her dresses were sewn “with superfluous tucks and folds” to accommodate her soaring size, the biography said.

Her rapid elongation, one account declared, caused her “constant ill health” because she grew excessively thin and, ultimately, “so weak as to be almost unable to stand.”

Hardy became “painfully brittle” because her bones couldn’t strengthen fast enough to keep up with her growth, it said.

At 18, when she tried to walk, “she fell to the ground and fractured a leg seriously,” which left her immobile for a couple of difficult years.

By her mid-20s, though, Hardy looked robust and matronly, her biography said. It called her bashful, mild and gentle.

The Daily Alta, a California newspaper, noted in March 1855 that Hardy had an excellent reputation as a nurse, but failing health had left her unable to practice her vocation.

Hardy had always shrunk from strangers, it said, until poverty forced her hand.

In all those years, Hardy left Wilton only once, visiting an unnamed city where crowds gawked at her on the sidewalk, leaving her embarrassed and not especially eager to leave town again.

BARNUM LURES HARDY TO HIS MUSEUM

It isn’t clear just how Hardy wound up leaving Wilton at the age of 30.

In one account, tiny Tom Thumb, the stage name of Charles Stratton, convinced her to join him on stage after his wife, supposedly a distant cousin of Hardy, brought her to his attention.

In another, Barnum caught wind of Hardy’s existence and reached out personally.

P.T. Barnum Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

It appears, though, that neither of those stories is true.

The notion that Tom Thumb played the critical role is easily disproved since he did not marry Lavinia Warren until 1863, long after Hardy’s debut with Barnum. And Barnum himself tended to search for talent that lesser promoters had already discovered.

Early in February 1855, a Portland paper said Hardy had been engaged by Bernard Covert, a popular singer who crooned temperance songs, for his concert troupe. Apparently part of his act included exhibiting some interesting specimens of humanity as he traveled from venue to venue throughout the Northeast.

Perhaps Barnum, or one of his talent scouts, attended one of the shows.

In any case, by that spring, Hardy was with Barnum in New York City. A Barnum advertisement in The New York Herald mentioned her on April 13. But a paper in South Carolina at the time said she first appeared on exhibit for him in mid-May.

A handbill for Barnum’s museum that appears to have been issued in April 1855 advertises the “Living Wonders” that people could see. It urges potential customers to eye the “Mammoth Girl” from New Hampshire who weighed more than 600 pounds, a “Dwarf Lady” only 27 inches tall, the Feejee Mermaid and the newly christened “Maine Giantess.”

A magazine called Yankee Notions said that spring that Barnum was making preparations for his annual Baby Show in June, including the installation of a steam engine to rock many cradles simultaneously.

“The Maine Giantess,” it said, “has been engaged as a nurse, and all persons sending babies are expected to look up to her.”

The Daily Minnesota Pioneer had a correspondent at the show, marveling that 10,000 or more people came to see rows of proud mothers holding their infants for everyone to ogle. Hardy and a “hairy Swiss child” were among them.

An account of the show, published in the Ottawa, Illinois Free Trader, mentioned that when the babies were moved away, the large crowd at the museum watched as Hardy “arose from her mammoth chair and startled a number of ladies old and young, terribly, as she walked” to a platform to join the bearded lady, bearded child, an Albino and a fat girl.

“Oh, dear me, did you ever see such a great big woman?” several of those present supposedly said.

“Thunder! Ain’t she a whopper!” exclaimed a newsboy who had gained admittance as a member of the press.

A stereo photograph looking north on Broadway outside P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York City. Library of Congress

TALES TOLD ABOUT HARDY

Barnum touted one story from the Portland Argus that claimed Hardy had to stoop a good deal and use the casings over doors for small articles such as thimbles so she could easily find them again.

Once, the story said, Hardy was going through a farmhouse kitchen with a large pan of milk in each hand when her hair caught on a hook projecting down from the ceiling.

An 1855 magazine illustration showing Sylvia Hardy towering over two men. The American Phrenological Journal

“She could neither stoop to set the pans down nor raise her hands to disengage her hair,” the paper said, and had to remain stuck there “until her cries brought others to her assistance.”

Hardy’s hands were so large, Barnum insisted, that she “never took a baby in her arms, but always held it in her hands. Placing the head between two of her fingers, its feet extending toward her wrist, her third and little fingers forming an admirable cradle, the length of her hand accommodated the whole length of the child.”

The Evening Star in Washington, D.C. noted that “an ordinary-sized man can walk upright under her extended arm.”

The American Phrenological Journal, devoted to the bizarre but then widespread study of the shape of heads, took note of Hardy in 1855, mentioning that she’d been exhibited by Barnum as a curiosity.

It said she was “massively proportioned, robust, matronly in appearance, symmetrical in figure, but inclined to stoop, as most tall people are, a habit acquired in her native village, where her gigantic height subjected her to a scrutiny on the part of strangers, most annoying to her bashful nature.”

The paper said she had large features – no surprise – and an amiable expression.

“Her disposition is mild and gentle to a pleasing degree,” the story said, adding that Hardy’s “voice is somewhat coarse, but not unmusical.”

“Her movements are easy and graceful, although, having never before left her village home, she is as yet unsophisticated in fashionable ways, and moves and acts with a timidity that a little more acquaintance with public life will readily remove,” the journal said.

“She certainly is one of the most wonderful natural phenomena of the age,” it added.

HARDY JOINS A TRAVELING ROAD SHOW

A year later, Hardy was still an attraction at the museum, but perhaps fading.

Barnum billed her between a bearded lady and a hippopotamus in 1856, no longer a spectacle worth trumpeting, her appeal as one the museum’s living exhibits fading.

Once the novelty of Hardy’s height wore off, she hit the road, visiting nearly every American city of note and Cuba as well.

In 1857, she appeared in Evansville, Indiana, in Colonel J.H. Wood’s Grand Museum of Living Wonders, billed as the “American Giantess” who required “145 yards of dry goods for a complete dress.”

But her former Maine Giantess moniker was soon back in the advertising, a recognition that she’d already become well known in that role.

Colby College’s legendary local historian Ernest Marriner once told a story about how Hardy would make it easier on the circus dwarfs during their long rides in horse-drawn carriages along bumpy rural roads.

He said she held the little people in her hands. “Yes, in her hands, not her arms,” Marriner added in one of his weekly radio talks a half-century ago.

An Ohio newspaper in 1859 mentioned that it had caught up with Wood, who had a museum like Barnum’s in Chicago, and “his living wonders” in Ashtabula, including Hardy. It claimed she was then 7 feet, 4 inches tall and 381 pounds.

The paper said she had masculine features “and though large, her size is in uniform – hugeness generally distributed – without excess of flesh or fat.”

“She seems to take her personal allotment with sadness and sorrow, and brood over her situation with an ascetic gloom,” it said.

Hardy at the time was with a young dwarf, only 27 inches tall, the paper said, and pleasing to see.

“Such opposite extreme,” it said, “are seldom met with and afford element for thought.”

In the summer of 1860, Hardy appeared with Wood’s show in Cleveland, Ohio, alongside the Lilliputian Queen, the Italian Bird Warbler and General Green of Missouri, billed as “smaller than Tom Thumb.” The Cleveland Morning Leader told readers to “go and see them.”

If she kept working after the start of the Civil War early in 1861, nobody paid much attention.

BACK HOME TO WILTON

A map showing Wilton, Maine in 1895. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division

Hardy apparently used her earnings as a living wonder to buy her mother a house in Wilton and moved there herself sometime in the 1860s. The Wilton Record said she traveled as the Maine Giantess for about a decade, earning enough to retire on her savings, but she may have spent as little as six years away.

Hardy may have done seances and other spiritual activities there in her later years.

At least one other woman, the 702-pound Hannah Battasly, also toured as the Maine Giantess, going on public display along the Ohio River in 1869. The Cairo Evening Bulletin in Illinois said that “the man who marries this young lady will have about six times as much wife as anybody else” and wondered if he could be charged with polygamy.

But Hardy, the original Maine Giantess, never married.

Marriner said that arthritis felled Hardy, who died on Aug. 25, 1888, at the age of 65.

To get her out of her Depot Street home in Wilton in her 8-foot long casket, he said, required cutting away a whole side of the home’s entryway.

It took 16 pallbearers to take her to the Wilton cemetery, beneath a stone marker where she remains.

The marker reads, simply, “Sylvia Hardy, died August 25, 1888, aged 65 years.”

For generations, there was no hint at her grave site that once upon a time, she stood head and shoulders above every other Mainer.

But a quarter-century ago, almost 100 years after Hardy’s death, the Wilton Historical Society added a bronze plaque there noting Hardy’s unique role as the “tallest lady” of her day.


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