by Dave Yanko
As a child in the 1880s, Edouard Beaupré dreamed of becoming a
cowboy. He was a talented rider and roper by the time he reached
his teens, and his large stature promised an early start to an occupation
that rewarded strength and endurance with the independent lifestyle
he coveted during occasional work among the ranch hands of the Willow
Bunch district (page updated 2012).
Beaupré quit catechism school at 15 and took a job working the
range. But his career as a cowboy was over in two years. He'd grown
so tall that when he straddled a horse, his feet dragged on the
ground. And at more than 300 pounds, he taxed the strength of the
For the young man who would become known in cities across North
America as 'The Giant', a dream had ended. What followed was a short
life on the freak-show circuit and 86 years of death without dignity.
photos courtesy Willow Bunch Museum
a horse for a living was out of the question.
The first of 20 children born to Gaspard Beaupré and his Metis wife Florestine,
Edouard was a large baby who nevertheless grew at a normal rate
for the first three years of his life. His parents were slightly
taller than average, his brothers and sisters normal. By the time
he reached the age of nine, however, the sensitive and intelligent
lad was six feet tall. At 21, he was a towering 8'2" and weighed
just under 400 pounds.
Old photos reveal a dapper and well-proportioned man whose extraordinary
height dwarfed the people and objects around him. His shoes were
size 22 and his hat size 15. It took 6 ˝ yards of fabric to produce
one of his custom-made shirts, which sported sleeves four feet long.
The Giant got his start in the freak-show business when neighbor
Andre Gaudry suggested it might be a good way to earn money for
him and his family. Gaudry and a friend of the Beaupré family named
Albert Legare accompanied the 17-year-old Giant on a North American
tour that included Winnipeg, Montreal, Buffalo, Chicago and several
cities in California. In no time, Beaupré had an agent and a regular
job in a touring circus.
From 1898 to 1904, the Giant earned a living being ogled by the
curious, wrestling strongmen and performing feats of strength for
audiences across North America - crouching beneath an 800-lb horse
and lifting it to shoulder height was one of his most popular stunts.
Touring big cities was tough on the country boy. He had almost
no private life. The only sanctuary from a gawking public was his
hotel room, where chamber maids typically used a steamer trunk covered
with a mattress to lengthen his bed. Fellow train passengers tittered
when he loaded his baggage into the luggage rack without leaving
Stress took its toll, but the Giant continued to work in spite
of being diagnosed in 1902 with tuberculosis. Two years later, while
performing with the Barnum and Bailey Circus at the St. Louis World's
Fair, the Willow Bunch Giant died. He was 23.
How much of the Giant's money actually made it home to his family
during his six years on the road is not clear. Likely very little.
Rumours swirled of a dishonest manager who pocketed more than his
share of the profits and stole the Giant's savings when he died.
Gaspard Beaupré had made it to Winnipeg before he phoned St. Louis
officials to say he was on his way to pick up his son's body. Some
accounts of the ensuing conversation suggest Gaspard was told he'd
require double the fare to return the body to Willow Bunch. And
since he didn't have enough money, he returned home.
But Ovila Lesperance, the Giant's nephew and Gaspard's
grandson who passed away in 2010, believed money wasn't the only factor. Lesperance, interviewed a number of years before his death, said he understood
Gaspard was told St. Louis doctors wanted to keep the corpse for
research purposes. And they said they were within their rights to
do so because it wasn't claimed fast enough.
nephew says the Giant was a kind and gentle man.
"According to what they told my grandpa when the Giant died, he
was to be buried in St. Louis," said Lesperance. "That's all we
Almost 70 years later, in the early 1970s, Lesperance was serving
as a councillor for the rural municipality when the secretary of
the organization approached him and asked whether he knew his late
uncle was on display at the University of Montreal. The secretary's
son was a doctor who learned of the Giant's whereabouts through
an article in a medical journal.
A macabre tale was beginning to unfold.
It seems that if St. Louis doctors spent any time at all studying
the body back in 1904, it wasn't much. The Giant's agent ended up
with the corpse. He had it embalmed and asked the circus to pay
transportation costs to Willow Bunch. The circus people refused.
To recoup embalming expenses, the agent put the body on display
and charged admission. The Giant's corpse eventually served as a
promotional prop in the storefront windows of St. Louis' commercial
district before it was transported to a Montreal museum around 1905.
The Eden Museum's new 'exhibit' was more than popular. A large
number of Montrealers travelled to the city's core specifically
to see the remains of the tallest man in the world, and their numbers
were bolstered by a steady stream of curious passers-by. Flustered
with the crowds, museum officials closed the display.
Another circus freak show was the next stop on the post-life tour.
But even the Giant's considerable drawing power couldn't save the
flagging enterprise. The circus went bankrupt and the corpse was
abandoned in a warehouse.
One can only imagine the reactions - and dreams - of the children
who uncovered the huge and decaying body while playing around the
warehouse in 1907. The Giant's discarded body was claimed for research
purposes by the University of Montreal.
Scientists at the university determined the Giant's extraordinary
size was caused by a malfunctioning pituitary gland that effectively
flooded his body with growth hormones - he was still growing when
he died. They treated the corpse with chemical preservatives and
for decades it was the featured exhibit of university tours, until
Lesperance heard of the display.
In 1975, Lesperance went to Montreal.
"I had a niece living in Montreal, and we went to the university
to see what we could do," he said.
"They had him in a glass case. He was naked. My niece told them
'that's no way to leave a person'. He might have been a Giant, but
he was human."
Their intention to retrieve the Giant and return him to Willow
Bunch for a proper burial was stymied, says Lesperance, by a chief
doctor who claimed the body belonged to the university and was still
required for research.
Lesperance recalled the doctor said: "What we can do is put him
away so people don't come and laugh and make jokes anymore."
was no such thing as off-the-shelf clothes for the Giant.
Lesperance and his niece believed they had no choice but to live
with the decision, and they returned to their respective homes.
But then some reporters got a hold of the story and began putting
tough questions to university administrators, and asking Lesperance
what he intended to do about the issue.
Lesperance said the doctor continued to stand firm. And since the
Giant's surviving relatives weren't anxious to get involved in what
they believed would be an expensive legal battle with the university,
they let the matter ride.
The university maintained its position until 1989, when a decision
was made to release the body if family ties could be proven, and
if relatives were willing to accept the Giant's cremated remains.
"The way he was mummified, he could last forever," said Lesperance.
"The doctor said that if we get that body and bury it, 100 years
from now somebody could dig him out and he'd be the same as he is
today. If he's cremated, he said, that'd be the end of it.
So on July 7, 1990, as part of a family reunion that saw hundreds of visitors to the small town of Willow Bunch, the Giant was laid to rest. His ashes were buried near his statue in front of the Willow Bunch Museum. Inside, a display celebrates a life lived.
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