When Barnum and Bailey’s talent scouts spotted the four strapping Shields Brothers in 1883, they invited the young men from Hunt County, Texas, to join the circus for $100 a week. Billed as “The Texas Giants,” the circus claimed their heights to be 7 feet, 8 inches and above. Barnum boasted they were “the tallest men in the world,” though their true heights remain a mystery.
The Shields brothers moved from Alabama with their family and settled a farm near White Rock, Texas, with three older brothers in 1868. Father John Shields stood between 6 feet, 6 inches, to 7 feet tall, while their mother Penelope’s height was above average.
The elder Shields brothers already had their own farms, but the four youngest, Jack, Frank (John Franklin), Guss (Augustus), and Shade (Shadrack) Shields, accepted the offer to travel with the circus over a life of toil on the farm. They soon eagerly boarded a train for New York.
The foursome enjoyed an easy job at the circus. They stood on display in specially-made military uniforms and tall hats, even though they were too young to have fought in the Civil War. In exchange for daily appearances as one of Barnum’s exhibits, the brothers enjoyed a life of decent pay, train travel, and luxurious hotel accommodations. The brothers also peddled print photographs of themselves in uniform that listed their names and billed heights.
Guss (Augustus) was born March 16, 1851. He was 28 and billed at 7 feet, 9 inches when he joined the circus. He was also probably the most intelligent of the four brothers. He authored a pamphlet on the brothers and later taught school.
Guss Shields discusses the family’s tall traits in a pamphlet he penned in 1884 soon after they joined the circus titled, A Biographical Sketch of the Four Texan Giants, The Shields Brothers. In it, he says that his maternal and paternal grandfathers were about 6 feet, 6 inches tall, as was his father.
“We are from a family of giants and not a freak of nature,” he said.
In a letter to his uncle Shadrack Anderson in Mineola on June 2, 1883, Guss describes in detail how their life was going while they were touring with P.T. Barnum. He said they are on “exhibition” from noon until 5:30 p.m., off an hour, then on again until 11 p.m. He describes impressive accommodations in Chicago, far different than what he had in Texas.
“We have a nice large room with carpets on the floor; in fact, the whole floor is carpeted, even the stairs. We have a good bed spring mattress. The bedstead is supposed to cost $12 to $15; marble-top washstand, marble-top bureau and from appearance marble must be very cheap, for the fire board and from the fire board to the floor is all marble even the hearth is marble. I am writing on a marble-top center table and my idea is it is more extravagance than anything else.”
He talks about their income as well.
“Although we are boarded and R.R. fare is paid, our other little expenses have to be paid. We get $100 per week and make some on pictures and a little book which I wrote before we left home last spring. The most I have made in one day is $8.72, but that was the best day we have had for selling books and pictures. My part of the salary is $4.12 per day, so I have made about $6 clear per day and we have an easy time, no responsibility nor no work.”
Guss died on his 48th birthday March 16, 1889, and is buried at Kingston Cemetery, Hunt County. An obituary in the Dallas Morning News states he left a wife and several children.
While Guss excelled at writing, his brothers pursued other talents.
John Franklin Shields was born September 27, 1853. He was 26 when he joined the circus and billed at 7 feet, 10 and one-half inches tall. Frank married three times and fathered many children, whose descendants still live near Greenville. During his marriage to Achasah Ross, the couple had 14 children. The most prolific of the four Shields brothers, Frank died November 7, 1910 at 57 and is buried in the Prairie Valley Cemetery, Lone Oak, Hunt County, Texas.
Jack Robinson Shields was born August 21, 1859 and was both the youngest and tallest of the Texas Giants, in life and legend. The circus boasted he measured just one inch short of 8 feet, but other records suggest he stood closer to 7 feet. Jack stayed with the circus seven years, and retired close to home, operating a grocery store in Kingston until his death on October 27, 1896, at age 37. Jack is buried at Webb Hill Cemetery, Wolfe City, Hunt County, Texas.
Shadrack Augustus “Shade” Shields was born December 1, 1855. He was likely the most famous of the four brothers and lived the longest, living to age 83. Billed at 7 feet, 8 inches, Shade was less of a giant than his taller brothers, but probably enjoyed showmanship much more. Relatives’ testimony and newspaper clippings show he was closer to 6 feet, 6 inches tall.
Shade joined Barnum’s Circus at 19 and continued for roughly two decades. Not long after his brothers returned to Texas, Shade married a 7-foot “giantess,” a fellow performer who used the stage name Annie O’Brien. The newlyweds continued touring as the “Tallest Married Couple on Earth,” with PT Barnum’s show, and later with other circuses. They had three children, all of average height.
After Annie’s death, Shade remarried and moved to Hornersville, Missouri. One account says Shade spent most of his time entertaining on river boats with his good friend William “Major” Ray, another circus veteran just three feet, five inches tall.
An article from The Reading Eagle, a newspaper in Dunklin County, dated December 26, 1926, tells the story of “Captain” Shade Shields, a former circus giant, and “Major” William Ray, a professional midget. Both 69 years old, they jointly owned a 400-acre farm near Hornersville, Missouri.
The article says the pair became friends during their circus days. Ray left first and married and settled on the farm. He invited Shade to visit after he quit the circus that same year.
“Liking life under the open blue sky better than life under the best grade of stock canvas,” the author writes, “he became a partner in the farm. On their Missouri farm the former circus men are getting too old to be particularly diligent in their farming so they have just cut down the acreage to what they can conveniently handle. They have a boat for fishing and they frequently use it. Captain Shields recalls with no little pride, ‘the four tallest brothers in the world.’
“We lacked little of being just that,” he says. “I was six feet nine back in those days and our tallest boy was just a trifle over seven feet with his boots on. I liked the circus, and circus friends are about the best friends in the world. But somehow I just like farming somewhat better.”
Shade died January 1, 1939. He is buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery, in Kennett, Dunklin County, Missouri, near Hornersville. Shade’s wife Elizabeth died three weeks later.
The Shields Brothers may have been giants, but most of their progeny achieved average height. Three exceptions were Marc, Terry, and Louis Freiberger, grandsons of Frank who played college basketball. At 6 feet 11 inches, Marc won a gold medal with the U.S. basketball team in the 1952 Olympics.
Greenville’s Audie Murphy American Cotton Museum displays memorabilia donated by the Shields family, proving the brothers were undisputedly tall, though not near what P.T. Barnum claimed along with his famous saying “There’s a sucker born every minute.” The museum displays a tall suit worn by Frank Shields and several photographs from the era.
Claims of the brothers’ true heights vary, even among family members. In a self-published book titled The Texas Giants (1972), Weldon Shields, a grandson of Jack Shields, agreed with Barnum’s claims. However, Martha Shields Thayer, a granddaughter of Frank Shields, says according to his account, Barnum posed the brothers in elevator boots to make them appear taller.
These accounts, plus a few newspaper articles and the museum display, comprise a handful of remaining sources about the once-famous Shields Brothers. In 2018, The Greenville Herald-Banner’s magazine, Greenville Life, featured the Shields Brothers in an article titled, “They might have been giants.” In it, writer John Markon analyzes varying claims about the brothers’ heights.
“It’s likely Barnum (and other promoters) added about one foot to the height of every brother,” Markon states.
A marker was placed in 1993 by descendants of the Shields Brothers in Kingston, at US Highway 69 N and CR 1038. Titled “The Shields Giants,” the marker commemorates their lives:
“The Shields brothers, known as the ‘Texas Giants,’ were featured attractions of the Barnum & Bailey Circus in the 1800s, traveling throughout the Northeast U.S. and Canada,” the article states. “The four brothers grew up three and a half miles east of Kingston on a farm near the old Merrick community. After their retirement from show business, the brothers took an active part in the religious, civic and business life in Hunt County. Descendants of the brothers still live in the area.”
Learn more about the Shields Brothers and other attractions at the museum and in a video about the exhibit with Executive Director Susan Lanning. Call (903) 450-4502 or visit www.cottonmuseum.com.