Who was Big Jim Patterson, ‘The World’s Tallest Man’? | Cass County sideshow


BLOOMBURG, Texas — When Benny Prince began researching his Ark-La-Tex roots, he had no idea he would meet a character literally larger than life.

James Wesley “Big Jim” Patterson, Prince’s great uncle, stood out in the family story as much as his reported 8 foot, 4 inch height stood out among residents of Bloomburg, where he died on Halloween 1920. A trove of heirloom documents, including rare vintage photos, told Prince the tale of Patterson’s life as a circus sideshow performer, businessman and member of a family that played an important role in the history of Cass County.

James Wesley “Big Jim” Patterson, at left in each photo, poses for undated photos. At a reported 8 feet, 4 inches tall, Patterson was billed as the world’s tallest man when he performed in circus sideshows in the 1890s. He later returned to his home in Bloomburg, Cass County, Texas, to join his prominent family in business ventures that played an important role in developing the town’s economy. Researcher and author B.E. Prince, Patterson’s great nephew, is writing a book on Patterson based in large part on a trove of family documents, letters and vintage photos.
Photos courtesy B.E. Prince

Now Prince is working on a book about Patterson and hopes someone out there can tell him even more about the giant billed by Sells Brothers Circus as “The World’s Tallest Man.”

Patterson was born on July 4, 1847, in Sevier County, Arkansas, and is buried in the Brightstar Cemetery in Miller County, Arkansas.

“There’s an interesting story about his grave site. There’s a fence now built around his tombstone and his parents’ and some of the relatives’. And when they went to fence in the grave sites, they made it too short. So his feet actually stick out of that little enclosed area,” Prince said in an interview for the Texarkana Gazette podcast “On the Line.”

James Wesley “Big Jim” Patterson, third from right, poses with family members in this undated photo. Patterson reportedly reached 7 feet tall by age 13 and later performed as “The World’s Tallest Man” in circus sideshows. The Pattersons established Bloomburg, Cass County, Texas’ first commercial businesses, including retail stores and a cotton warehouse, and in later years they established banks as their wealth grew, according to researcher and author B.E. Prince, Patterson’s great nephew.

Reports vary regarding just how tall Patterson was, but photos show him towering above family members, and his size certainly was impressive enough that it drew an audience.

“Everyone local says he was 8-4. He’s not listed in either Guinness records or anything you find online. He would have been the fifth or sixth tallest person in the U.S. to ever live at 8-4.

“However, the obituary stated a little something different. So his obituary was actually printed in San Francisco, on the east coast, in the Midwest. It was printed in quite a few places, stating he was 7-5,” Prince said.

Exactly when Patterson became a “freak” — as sideshow performers called themselves in the golden age of circuses — is unclear, but by the 1890s he was putting on shows not only as himself, but also, donning dresses, as a giant woman. He also portrayed an “African wildman” character who would growl at onlookers, shaking the bars of his cage.

“I have several pictures of him in a couple of different dresses, which, in his letters, he complained about how much they cost because he had to get them custom made. At the time, I guess they were about $3,000 or so in today’s money,” Prince said.

Far from being exploited by the circus, Prince said, Patterson got in on the business as a partner and co-owner of its menagerie, which included a rare albino gorilla trained to do tricks such as swinging on a trapeze.

Photograph and autograph sales supplemented his income to the point that he earned today’s equivalent of about $15,000 a week. Prince has found records of land purchases Patterson made in his travels across the country.

Much of Patterson’s correspondence found so far concerns the circus’ tour of Australia, where he was touted as “The U.S. Giant” and hobnobbed with the country’s upper classes.

Eventually, he would leave show business behind and return home to Bloomburg, where his family was taking advantage of the Kansas City Southern Railroad to grow its wealth in the cotton and banking businesses, among other ventures. The family built the three-story Patterson Building, once the tallest in Cass County, according to Prince.

A Houston-area technology professional, Prince began researching his family tree about a year and a half ago. He has become an active member of the Cass County Genealogical Society and other genealogy groups and is working toward becoming an Accredited Genealogist.

He is crowdfunding self-publication of his book, “Out of the Borderlands and Into the Bigtop: Adventures of the World’s Tallest Man,” through the Kickstarter website, with almost $1,200 pledged so far toward a $6,600 goal.

“It’s definitely a story I want to get out there, for sure. And maybe eventually do a screenplay and a movie because there are just so many cool things,” he said.

“I’m planning on going back up to Cass County here in a few months. So the Genealogical Society, they’ve invited me to come do a presentation. Just hoping to talk to some of the old timers and gather as many stories as I can about him and the family.”


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