Editor’s note: I’m still totally busy and failing at my duties here. Luckily, Jennifer Knopf wanted to write a guest post about the amazing Jim Porter, a giant of Louisville’s history.
No doubt Muhammad Ali is Louisville’s favorite son. However, if you have lived in the Louisville area for even a few years, it is likely you have heard of another Louisville son.
Jim Porter, the Kentucky Giant, was Louisville’s beloved son of another era. When steamships ruled the Ohio River and the Portland area was destined to be the center of Louisville commercial activity, all eyes were on Jim.
You most likely know Jim is the namesake of at least two popular Louisville public establishments, lived in the early 19th Century, stood 7-foot-8 and weighed close to 300 pounds. You may even know he had an 8-foot gun he christened, “The Little Rifle” and owned multiple taverns in the Portland area.
But Porter was a character all his own. His personality, antics and wit were as big as his build. Legends of the man would still have circulated the Louisville area even without his grand size.
A betting man could make a fortune on his rapid growth
Porter actually started out life as a tiny and sickly boy. At age 14, he raced horses as a jockey in Shippingport before it was an island. There’s no word on whether he was any good.
This all changed at 17 when he began growing at a phenomenal pace. His height would increase by a noticeable amount, sometimes as much as an inch in a week.
It didn’t take long before enterprising Portlanders began making bets on his growth. Bookies roamed the area taking bets on the amount of the week’s growth: an inch, less than an inch or not at all. Every Saturday night Porter allowed himself measured and weighed.
This went on for at least three years (some sources say more) until he stopped growing, reaching his full height and weight.
The name for his condition is acromegaly (think: Andre the Giant)
The condition results from a tumor (usually benign) pressing on the pituitary gland, releasing high doses of growth hormone.
In 2006, area doctors gathered in Portland to review Porter’s “medical records,” or rather medical information gathered over time from friends, family and newspapers. The doctors agreed Porter had this hereditary condition and most likely died from heart disease complicated by acromegaly.
In 1925, the Courier-Journal did a story on the 6-foot-5 Louisville chief of police. The article revealed Porter was his paternal great-uncle.
He had a love/hate relationship with his size
Like any celebrity, Porter used his size and fame to his advantage but hated the inevitable stares and questions that came with being a local celebrity of his … ahem … stature.
He quit his job transporting people between Portland and Louisville because the jaw-dropping stares deeply bothered him. He switched to a more private career of running taverns.
Conversely, he loved that crowds flocked to his bars just to gaze upon him as they drank, and he often traveled around town with his 5-foot-4 business partner Elisha Reynolds performing skits related to his height.
Elisha: How’s the weather up there?
Porter: (spitting up into the air) Sounds like thunder.
Um, gross, but apparently it worked as throngs of people visited his taverns.
His taverns had a few odd rules — even for his era
Our culture is dramatically different from Porter’s era, and as culture changes, rules must change. So, it’s understandable that they would have rules that we find humorous today. Sometimes sources will explain the reason particular rules were set in place. Other times history offers no explanation. This leaves the reader to wonder what in the world could have possibly happened to force the rule maker to take note for future customers.
Porter permitted gambling in his taverns, so the first rule seems reasonable.
“No gentleman will wear or display firearms on the premises.”
In some places, this rule still stands today, except we include ladies. That part would be humorous to people in the early 19th Century.
The next rule makes more sense after some explanation.
“No ladies allowed until 3:13 p.m. After 3:13 p.m. females are cordially welcomed.”
There were stock-market tickers in Jim’s taverns. Apparently, the language the men used in response to falling stock prices were too harsh for ladies’ fragile ears. I wonder what Porter would think of one of the Real Housewives franchises.
Now, we get into the “This I Gotta Hear” rules:
“Gentlemen must not leave their horses beyond three months. Otherwise, they will be sold at auction and poundage charged.”
What precipitated this rule? How often did this happen? What poor horse was stuck there more than three months? Does the establishment owner feed and care for the horse free of charge for three months? Is it like in the old cowboy movies where the horses are tied up to a log in front of the tavern?
I’m certainly on board with this next rule. I’m glad our culture has gone so far as to outlaw it today.
“No cock-fighting within hearing distance.”
But I have to ask again, what happened? How far is hearing distance? Can it be seen, but not heard? Oh, to be a fly on the wall.
In many places he is not The Kentucky Giant, or even The Tallest Person Ever From Kentucky
In other parts of Kentucky (and the world) Martin Van Buren Bates, a 7-foot-3 Confederate captain from Letcher county is considered The Kentucky Giant. He and his wife, the 7’11-½” Anna, were a touring sensation. They traveled all over the country and Europe. The title The Kentucky Giant may be associated with Bates in more locations spanning the globe.
Similarly, other parts of the country and world consider another man as The Kentucky Giant. In 1877, The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, Pa., acquired a 7-foot-6 skeleton. To this day, no one knows anything about the skeleton except it came from Kentucky.
Shameful, but true. According to the United States Census Slave Schedule of 1850 (slave inventory census), Jim owned four female slaves, ages 43, 22, 2 and 0, and 1 male age 0.
The 2-year-old girl is noted as a mixed-race. It is said Porter never had children, but it wasn’t uncommon for white owners to father children with his female slave and never claim them. The child of a female slave became a new slave and therefore property of the white owner unless he chose to sell them.
There is no evidence that proves Porter is the father of the 2-year-old, but it’s possible. Can anyone say, Thomas Jefferson?
He was extremely witty
In his book, “American Notes,” Charles Dickens states that upon boarding his steamship as it was preparing to leave the Portland canal, he had a giant guest waiting for him. The guest mentioned in his book is supposedly Porter — The Kentucky Giant.
Family, friends, and eyewitnesses claim this is not true. The actual story is Dickens wanted to meet Porter. He sent a message to Porter requesting his visit. Porter responded:
“Jim Porter is bigger than Charles Dickens. If Dickens wishes to see me more than I wish to see him, he will come to me.”
Dickens took the hint and visited him in his tavern.
He loved to talk politics
Porter was a steadfast Whig (for the short time Whigs were around in the United States) and a great admirer of Henry Clay.
He would show up at local and regional rallies wearing red fringed buckskin hunting clothes with a raccoon skin hat (a la Daniel Boone) to promote the Whigs’ Log Cabin campaign supporting presidential candidate William Henry Harrison. For a man who hated the stares, he could certainly draw attention to himself.
Similarly, Porter entered the race for the Portland area representative on the city council of Louisville. He was an “11th-hour entry,” yet he still managed to beat out the candidate who had been campaigning much longer.
Talking great politics does not always translate into representing a population of people as a leader in government. City council records show he didn’t contribute much and was absent for most meetings, citing illness.
The location of Porter’s Portland tavern was confirmed in 2010
It was always speculated Porter’s Lone Star Tavern was on the corner of 34th Street (formerly known as Commercial Street) and Florida Alley, but archaeologists finally confirmed it in 2010: They found the building’s footprint and an underground cellar for storing liquor.
The above items are just a portion of the facts known and yet to be discovered about Porter. He is deeply tied to the growth of this amazing city. As an early resident of the fledgling city, Jim Porter contributed to its growth in the days when steamships ruled the rivers.