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Texas History

Towering Texans’ Circus Tour

P.T. Barnum puts Shields brothers under the big top as the Texas Giants

In frontier Texas, where high-heeled boots and 10-gallon hats gave even normal-sized hombres a vertical advantage, the Shields brothers rose above the rest like skyscrapers in downtown Dallas. Their heads reached so high that in 1879 they attracted the attention of one of P.T. Barnum’s talent scouts. Four of the brothers, not so enamored with scratching out a living on their father’s hardscrabble farm in northeastern Texas, were easily persuaded to join the circus and travel the country as entertainers—billed as the Texas Giants.

There were actually nine brothers, sons of John and Penelope Shields of Alabama, who settled on a farm near White Rock in 1868. The couple lost one son, James, in the Civil War and another, Starling, before the move to Texas. The boys’ father was between 6 feet 6 inches and 7 feet tall, their mother of average height.

There must have been a good milk cow in the barn, though, because the youngsters continued to grow.

And grow.

By 1879, Jack, Frank, Guss and Shadrack (Shade) Shields had sprouted into full-grown giants. Many accounts say each was well over 7 feet tall, though some sources claim none of them reached that height. Barnum, infamous for supposedly stating, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” listed the Texas Giants as: Shade, 7-8; Guss, 7-10; and Frank and Jack at 7-11 3/4 inches. An average-sized man could walk beneath their outstretched arms with his hat on.

By the time Barnum discovered the Shields family, the three oldest boys were settled on farms and had no interest in the roaming life offered by the Greatest Show on Earth. But the four youngest, eager to wring excitement from lives of toil, rushed to the depot in Kingston and boarded the train for New York City. Frank, 26, and Guss, 28, were married, but times were hard and the lure of a $100 weekly salary was too good to pass up. The giants supplemented their incomes by selling photos of themselves, called cabinet cards, for 10 cents apiece.

The Shields brothers, who traveled by train throughout the United States and Canada, appeared with Barnum for 10-day periods in large cities like Chicago and at many one-day stops in between. They also toured Great Britain. “We have a nice large room with carpets on the floor,” Guss wrote to an uncle from a luxury hotel, “ … and we have an easy time, no responsibility nor no work.”

Their job was simply to be on display. They appeared in specially made military uniforms crowned by tall hats, and rumors circulated that Barnum outfitted them with elevator shoes. The four were on exhibit from noon to 5:30 p.m., took an hour off for dinner in the circus concession, and returned until 11 p.m.

On Christmas Day, 1890, Shade Shields married a giantess, 7-foot-tall, red-haired Annie O’Brien. The couple toured together as “the tallest married couple on Earth.” They had one son, who was of average height.

Guss, Jack and Frank quit the circus in 1883 when a smallpox epidemic broke out in the Barnum camp, said Annie Shields, Jack’s daughter-in-law, in a 1969 interview for the Denison Herald newspaper. Guss and Frank lost wives to the disease. Jack ran a grocery store in Kingston after his circus career and later joined his younger brother in operating a saloon. Shade moved to Hornersville, Missouri, where he was elected mayor and then justice of the peace. His closest friend was 3-foot-tall William “Major” Ray, another circus veteran who settled in Hornersville.

Circuses brought much-needed entertainment in the 19th century. While many sideshow performers were billed as freaks of nature, the Texas Giants simply sprang from a family of exceptionally large people. Most of their numerous offspring were of average size, although Frank’s grandson, Marcus Ross Freiberger, was 6-10 and won a gold medal with the U.S. basketball team in the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.

Martha Deeringer is a frequent contributor.