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Stacy Conradt

The Kentucky Giant

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Stacy Conradt

For years, every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like cemeteries to boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles (cemetery and/or tombstone enthusiasts) out there, I’m finally putting my photo library of interesting tombstones to good use.

As teenagers tend to do, Kentuckian Jim Porter hit a growth spurt in 1828 at the age of 17. But Jim Porter didn’t stop at a few inches. He didn’t even stop at a foot. For the next nine years, Porter would continue to add to his height—even allowing amazed locals to measure him weekly—until he finally stopped at 7 feet 8 inches. That’s two inches taller than Yao Ming, for reference.

It’s no surprise that people started calling him “Big Jim,” a local nickname that would soon give way to the nationwide moniker “The Kentucky Giant.” Though Porter did spend a year traveling with an acting troupe that performed Gulliver’s Travels, he mostly preferred to stick close to home, managing the tavern he owned in Louisville. In fact, he was at the tavern in 1842 when Charles Dickens stopped by to see the local legend, deeming him a “a light-house walking among lamp-posts” in American Notes. No less than P.T. Barnum read Dickens’ description, and couldn’t stop himself from trying to recruit Porter for his own business needs. Porter declined.

Porter was just 48 when he died in 1859, causing many to believe that his great height caused heart problems. But even death didn’t stop Porter’s admirers: Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville buried Porter in a hillside vault, leaving a door with an ornamental opening it in so people should see how large his 9-foot coffin was in comparison to a regular-sized one. It’s not there now, and hasn’t been for more than 100 years. After the vault fell into disrepair in the late 1800s, the door was removed and Porter’s grave was marked with a simple stone, stopping the spectator sport of coffin comparisons.

Big Jim was all but forgotten when a new Kentucky Giant stole his thunder: Martin Van Buren Bates of Lecher County, Kentucky, who was said to have been to 7 feet 9 inches to 7 feet 11 inches (accounts vary). Fun fact: Van Buren was married to Anna Swan, who was 7 feet 5 inches herself. They had a child who weighed 22 pounds at birth—so you can see why this larger-than-life couple overshadowed Porter.

To pay your respects to the original Kentucky Giant, however, stop by Cave Hill Cemetery the next time you’re in Louisville.

And, just for the record, the tallest man in the world was Robert Wadlow, whom Guinness measured at 8 feet 11 inches in 1940. His record has yet to be beaten.

See all entries in our Grave Sightings series here.

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25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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fun
How Urban Legends Like 'The Licked Hand' Are Born
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If you compare the scary stories you heard as a kid with those of your friends—even those who grew up across the country from you—you’ll probably hear some familiar tales. Maybe you tried to summon Bloody Mary by chanting her name in front of the mirror three times in a dark bathroom. Maybe you learned never to wonder what’s under a woman’s neck ribbon. Maybe you heard the one about the girl who feels her dog lick her hand in the middle of the night, only to wake up to find him hanging dead from the shower nozzle, the words “humans can lick too” written on the wall in the dog’s blood.

These ubiquitous, spooky folk tales exist everywhere, and a lot of them take surprisingly similar forms. How does a single story like the one often called “Humans Can Lick Too” or "The Licked Hand" make its way into every slumber party in America? Thrillist recently investigated the question with a few experts, finding that most of these stories have very deep roots.

In the case of The Licked Hand, its origins go back more than a century. In the 1990s, Snopes found that a similar motif dates back to an Englishman’s diary entry from 1871. In it, the diary keeper, Dearman Birchall, retold a story he heard at a party of a man whose wife woke him up in the middle of the night, urging him to go investigate what sounded like burglars in their home. He told his wife that it was only the dog, reaching out his hand. He felt the dog lick his hand … but in the morning, all his valuables were gone: He had clearly been robbed.

A similar theme shows up in the short story “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” published in 1919 by M.R. James. In it, a character dozes off in an armchair, and thinks that he is petting his dog. It turns out, it’s some kind of hairy human figure that he flees from. The story seems to have evolved from there into its presently popular form, picking up steam in the 1960s. As with any folk tale, its exact form changes depending on the teller: sometimes the main character is an old lady, other times it’s a young girl.

You’ll probably hear these stories in the context of happening to a “friend of a friend,” making you more likely to believe the tale. It practically happened to someone you know! Kind of! The setting, too, is probably somewhere nearby. It might be in your neighborhood, or down by the local railroad tracks.

Thrillist spoke to Dr. Joseph Stubbersfield, a researcher in the UK who studies urban legends, who says the kind of stories that spread widely contain both social information and emotional resonance. Meaning they contain a message—you never know who’s lurking in your house—and are evocative.

If something is super scary or gross, you want to share it. Stories tend to warn against something: A study of English-language urban legends circulating online found that most warned listeners about the hazards of life (poisonous plants, dangerous animals, dangerous humans) rather than any kind of opportunities. We like to warn each other of the dangers that could be lurking around every corner, which makes sense considering our proven propensity to focus on and learn from negative information. And yes, that means telling each other to watch out for who’s licking our hands in the middle of the night.

Just something to keep in mind as you eagerly await Jezebel’s annual scary story contest.

[h/t Thrillist]

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