The Tragic Life and Afterlife of Édouard Beaupré, Giant of Willow Bunch

Édouard was a perfectly normal child when he arrived into this world in Willow Bunch Saskatchewan on January 9, 1881. His father was Gaspard Beaupré, a French Canadian from Quebec. His mother was Florestine Piché, a Metis woman who fled the Red River Colony in Manitoba during the 1870 uprising.

The first-born of twenty siblings, Édouard’s early years were unexceptional until he entered parochial school at the age of seven. This is when an undiagnosed tumour in his pituitary gland caused unregulated production and release of growth hormones into his body. He started to grow inches overnight. By the time he was twelve years old, he was six and a half feet tall, taller even than his father, who was also above average height.

Édouard was a bashful and shy young man, and this made him quiet. And as these things go, those who did not know him well mistook his quietness for dullness. But he was not dull. He was quiet, and thoughtful, and bright in his own understated way. When he reached his teen years he spoke English and French, and was conversational in Michif, Cree, and Sioux. Despite his intelligence, he did not take to his education. He was put off by the cruelty of his classmates, and he rebuffed attempts by his teacher to engage him. For solace, Édouard helped out around some local ranches and dreamed of an escape into the open range. He wanted to be a cowboy.

To this end, he found a couple of mentors who taught him to throw a lasso, and how to herd and tend to cattle in his free time. One day there was a mishap, he was thrown from a horse, and kicked in the face. The permanent disfigurement caused by this accident only increased the young man’s shyness and self-consciousness, which was already strained by his unnatural height and weight. When he left school at fifteen, he was 350 pounds, and over seven feet tall.

For a time here, Édouard was content. He had found freedom in the rolling hills outside of town, doing the work that he loved. But his pituitary gland had other ideas and continued secreting hormones into his bloodstream which told his body to grow. Soon he was eight feet tall, and 400 pounds. His weight stressed even the sturdiest horse, and when mounted his feet dragged along the ground. Édouard was forced to let go of his dream at the tender age of sixteen.

A neighbour named Andre Gaudry came to him and suggested that he could earn money for his family and himself touring as a strongman on the freak-show circuit. In 1898, at the age of 17 Édouard left Willow Bunch for the first time, chaperoned by Andre and Albert Legare, a family friend of the Beauprés. They toured North America, calling at all the big cities in Canada and the US. Édouard would lift horses, and bend steel bars to audible gasps of the Victorian audiences. But mostly he was just gawked at for who he was, an especially upsetting experience for a boy who tried his best to shrink away from people and into himself.

This was extremely detrimental to his mental health. He was a small-town country boy, and he hated the bustle and noise of the big cities. The shy and awkward man was not a natural showman. He shrunk from the stage lights rather than embracing them. And unlike other showmen, Édouard could never be ‘off’. At over eight feet tall, simply walking down the street would draw crowds of onlookers. He was forced to retreat into his hotel rooms to have any sort of privacy and peace. He began to drink to medicate his depression.

In the spring of 1901 Édouard was coerced into a grotesque spectacle at Sohmer Park, Montreal’s answer to Coney Island, in the form of a wrestling match with Louis Cyr.  Cyr was a French-Canadian who was then billed as the strongest man in the world, and a veteran of the freak-show circuit himself. At 37, he was already well past his prime, descending into ill-shape and ill health. Still, Édouard was not a wrestler nor fighter, and the gentle giant could scarcely muster the courage to land a single blow. Cyr took him down in minutes, to the disgusted jeers and hisses of the 2,000 onlookers in attendance at the match.

This proved to be a soul-destroying event for Beaupré, and it precipitated his descent into the bottle and into the sad resignation that comes along with the realization that he was not in control of his own life. His health, both physical and mental, declined, and in 1902 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis.

Édouard continued to tour and work over the next two years, but he was a shadow of his former self. He signed a contract to tour with the Barnum and Bailey Circus, but shortly after arriving in St Louis for the 1904 World’s Fair, he collapsed and died from a massive pulmonary hemorrhage on July 3. He was 8 feet, 3 inches tall. He was only 23 years old.

Sadly, though he may have found some peace, the man who was forced to live without dignity would not find any in death either.

After an autopsy which finally revealed the tumour responsible for his gigantism, the undertakers embalmed his body. Beaupré’s agent implored Barnum and Bailey to finance his return to Willow Bunch, but they refused. Beaupré’s family was too poor to pay the transportation costs. So to recoup their expenses, the undertakers sold the body to a local speculator, who put it on unceremonial display in a St Louis shop window. This morbid spectacle attracted such large and unruly crowds that the local police soon put a stop to it.

It was at this point that a Willow Bunch businessman who knew the Beauprés stepped in and travelled to St Louis. But instead of doing the humane thing and returning the body home, he purchased it and took it to Montreal, selling it to the Musée Eden, known for its displays of the morbid and grotesque. Once again, Édouard was placed in a window in yet another undignified display. And yet again, the spectacle drew unruly crowds until it was shut down by local police.

Unable to profit from their cash-cow, the museum sold Édouard’s body to a fly-by-night circus, whose name is lost to history. It very soon folded, and the body was unceremoniously dumped in a storage warehouse, where it would lay for several years until it was unwittingly stumbled upon by a pair of mischievous children. Somehow, the Université de Montréal got wind of this and claimed the body for their anatomy department in the faculty of medicine.

After using the body for medical research the anatomy department mummified the body and put it in a glass case, and once again Édouard was used in an undignified display that was the highlight of the university’s tours of the faculty of medicine. It is here that Édouard’s body lay for almost eighty years.

Ovila Lesperance, Beaupré’s nephew, who by this time was an elderly man, was contacted by a friend who informed him of the circumstances surrounding Édouard’s remains. In 1975 he travelled to Montreal, and accompanied by a niece who lived in the city, he went to the university to try and reclaim the body and bring it home. They were rebuffed by the chief doctor, who maintained it belonged to the university, and was still needed for research.

“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.”

Ovila Lesperance

The university was adamant. The best they could do was have the chief doctor agree to remove the body from public display and thus end the undignified gawking from the public. Defeated, Lesperance went back to Saskatchewan. 

At some point the media got hold of the story. They interviewed Lesperance, and put some tough questions to the university administration. Despite the attention and growing pressure from the public, the university maintained its right to the body right up until 1989, when they finally agreed to release it if familial ties could be proven. Lesperance returned to Montreal, and after being told by the doctors that if buried, the mummification process would preserve the body intact for hundreds of years, they agreed to have the remains cremated to prevent any chance of grave robbing and further indignities to Édouard’s remains. Because of his enormous size, Édouard’s earthly remains filled two giant urns.

This is how it came to be, that on July 7, 1990, 86 years after his passing, Édouard Beaupré was finally repatriated home to Willow Bunch. He finally escaped the city he hated, and was returned to the pastoral, rolling hills he loved. His ashes were buried under a statue of himself in front of the Willow Bunch museum in a solemn ceremony attended by family and family friends. Finally, the Giant of Willow Bunch had found the peace he so richly deserved.

[Notes: the lead photograph is public domain, sourced from Wikipedia; the closing photographs are the author’s own work taken on a visit to Willow Bunch in May of 2022]


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