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  The Giant Beaupré

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 sturdiest steed.

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.

Riding a horse for a living was out of the question.
- all photos courtesy Willow Bunch Museum
Riding 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 his seat.

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.

Beaupré's nephew says the Giant was a kind and gentle man.
Beaupré's 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 knew."

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."

There was no such thing as off-the-shelf clothes for the Giant.
There 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.

"We agreed."

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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