El Hombre Que Compraba Gigantes

I mentioned in a previous post that I visited the National Museum of Anthropology in Madrid one day where I stumbled upon the skeleton of Agustín Luengo Capilla, el Gigante Extremeño (the Extremeñan Giant). When I got home I discovered that in 2013 a historical novel, El Hombre Que Compraba Gigantes by Luis C. Folgado de Torres, was published about Agustín’s life. Lola works in the same building as the public library here in Plasencia. She asked the librarians if they had a copy of the book. They hadn’t heard of it, but immediately ordered a copy as they deemed it to be of regional interest. Six months went by and the book finally arrived. The librarians would’ve strangled me if I had wandered in one more time and asked, “Mi libro no ha llegado todavía?”

Agustín was born in the village of Puebla de Alcocer in Badajoz in the summer of 1849. His family was extremely poor. They had to knock holes in the walls of their home to make room for Agustín’s bed. He was chronically ill as a child and at the age of 12 his parents basically sold him to a Portuguese man, Marrafa, who owned a travelling circus. Marrafa paid 70 reales, two loaves of bread, some rice, some honey, a bottle of spirits, two legs of jamón, and a daguerreotype for the boy.

Agustín would become one of the main attractions of the Circo Luso as it criss-crossed Spain in the 1860s and early 1870s. In order to sell more tickets he was billed as “The Tallest Man in Spain,” but this was a lie. Agustín reached a height of 2 meters 35 cm (7 feet 8.5 inches) in his short life. However, the tallest man in Spain at the time was Miguel Joaquín Eleizegui Arteaga, el Gigante de Alzo, from the Basque Country. Miguel was 10 cm (just shy of 4 inches) taller than Agustín.

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El Hombre Que Compraba Gigantes by Luis C. Folgado de Torres

Agustín’s big trick at the circus was to place a 1 kg loaf of bread in his hand and make it disappear as he closed his enormous fingers around it. (His hands were 40 cm –nearly 16 inches – long.) This was another lie. The loaf of bread always weighed significantly less than 1 kg.

Agustín was terrified at having to leave his family, but he was welcomed with open arms by his new circus family.

There was María Peligros, La Mujer Serpiente (the Serpent Woman). María kept an eye on Agustín and he fell madly in love with her. She made extra cash on the side prostituting herself after hours to the men of the villages they passed through. She refused Agustín’s naïve, youthful advances.

There was Canivell, El Cazador de Rayos  (the Lightning Bolt Hunter). Canivell had a machine that generated electricity and shot sparks into the air. At the time this must have seemed like absolute witchcraft to a country of people who lived without electricity in their homes.

There were the Gómez Tao brothers from the Philippines. They were described as tiny, gruesome monsters. They suffered from gar-goylism. They were kept naked in a cage. They couldn’t speak and only made strange gibbering and moaning noises.

There was Rufina, a young Gypsy girl who worshipped Agustín. She was a contortionist and she read fortunes. As a small child her father broke several of her bones and made certain they healed improperly to ensure he would get a good price when he sold her to the circus.

And then there was Marrafa, the boss. As a young man Marrafa had to leave his native Portugal in a hurry when his fiancé’s father realized he wasn’t going to go through with the wedding. He was in love with a man. During Agustín’s time with the Circo Luso, Marrafa was in love with Marcos Villalba. Marcos managed the circus and in his free time wrote poetry that swept Marrafa off his feet. One day Marrafa was reading one of his lover’s poems in a café and the waiter said, “I see you like Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer.” Marrafa was crushed that his lover was a fraud.

When the circus was on the move they did their best to travel the back roads because of trouble with the police since Marrafa didn’t have all of his paperwork in order. There was also a serial killer on the loose at the time, Juan Díaz de Garayo, better known as El Sacamantecas (the Fat Extractor). He strangled five women and a small girl. He disemboweled his last two victims, hence the nickname, and was garroted in May, 1881.

Agustín’s big break came when, in the town of Alcázar de San Juan, he met Antonio Cánovas del Castillo, the Prime Minister of Spain at the time. He was there for the grand opening of a section of a new railway line.  He invited Agustín to perform for King Alfonso XII in Madrid. Marrafa and Agustín travelled to the capital and this is where the eccentric Doctor Velasco enters the story.

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Agustín’s skeleton in the National Museum of Anthropology, Madrid

Velasco witnessed Agustín’s performance at the Palacio Real and shortly afterwards made an unusual proposal to the giant. He offered Agustín 2 ½ pesetas a day (roughly twice what the average worker made at that time in Madrid) for the rest of the giant’s life. Velasco had a hunch the giant wasn’t going to live much longer. When Agustín died his body would then become the property of Velasco and his new Museum of Anthropology. Agustín wanted freedom from poverty and Velasco wanted a giant for his collection. The embalming of Agustin’s corpse was to be his masterpiece. At that time it was not easy for a man of science to get his hands on a corpse to study due to religious and legal reasons.

Without a doubt the most disturbing, and completely unexpected, scene in the entire book occurs when, after sealing the deal with the giant, Velasco arrives at the dinner table with his dead daughter’s embalmed body. He places her in a chair and the doctor and Agustín proceed to dine with the corpse. It turns out the doctor had some issues. Velasco’s wife, who was traumatized by her husband’s obsession, stormed out of the room shouting about his insane behavior. The doctor felt responsible for his daughter’s death since he changed her medicine when she was extremely ill. She died almost immediately. One would think that Agustín would have been shocked by the incident, but he had just spent over a decade in the circus. He wasn’t very easily shocked.

So, after Agustín accepted the deal Marrafa returned to the circus without his main attraction. In Madrid the giant drank himself into a stupor pretty much every night of the week. He fell in love with a prostitute and gave her 1,000 pesetas of 1,500 which Velasco had given him as part of their deal. Agustín was convinced he was going to save her from the brothel and that they were going to start a life and a family together. Then they had a falling out and he didn’t bother attempting to get the money back. Then he started an affair with Eunice, one of Velasco’s black servants. Part of her job was to give Agustín his 2 ½ pesetas when he showed up at the Doctor’s residence every afternoon.

When Agustín died of tuberculosis at the age of 26 Eunice, who at this point was completely in love with the giant, hid the fact from Velasco for two days. In this way he wouldn’t be able to go through with his embalming project. Eunice wanted Agustín to have a proper Catholic burial. When an angry Velasco finally got around to working on the corpse he separated the meat from the bones too quickly using chemicals and he accidentally shrunk the skeleton by 10 cm in the process. Since his embalming masterpiece was not to be, he settled instead for making a plaster casting of the corpse which, alongside Agustín’s skeleton, is still on display at the museum to this day.

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statue of Agustín in Puebla de Alcocer

In Puebla de Alcocer, the village where Agustín was born, the local council has recently begun using the giant as a way to draw in tourists. In the local ethnographic museum they have one of Agustín’s boots (size 52) and an original Circo Luso poster with Agustín’s image on it proudly on display. They even commissioned an artist to make a life-size statue of a colorful, smiling, Agustín. It is disturbingly Disney-like and shows absolutely none of the pain and suffering which followed poor Agustín throughout most of his days.

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