By JUDD HAMBRICK / Special to the Daily Journal
Mt. Vernon, Texas, June 24, 1909: Henry Clay Thruston, 79, who was – as all of us in these parts know – the tallest man in the American Civil War and who now resides here, has just returned from a trip to Memphis for a Confederate veterans reunion.
Even at his current age and standing in his stocking feet, Thruston (pronounced Thooston), now – as then – soars to 7 feet 7 inches tall.
Many of his shorter fellow veterans who have grown old and stooped in the 44 years since the end of the War still marvel at his erect posture and his incredible height. He moved through the crowd head and shoulders above the vets he went to war with. Wearing his trademark beaver stovetop hat, he seemed even taller.
The old soldiers swapped stories at the reunion about all their experiences in that bloody War Between the States so many years ago. Inevitably, one of Thruston’s “tall tales” was remembered. It was the time his Rebel Army Company was lined up for “dress parade” somewhere in northern Arkansas. The ranks were in perfect alignment; troops were at attention, as the commanding officer, Colonel Preston, inspected the men. The Colonel looked in the rear of the Company and saw Thruston rising well above the rest.
“Get off that stump!” screamed Colonel Preston. Thruston didn’t move. In a rage, the Colonel repeated the order, not with a scream but with a roar. Thruston still didn’t move as he stood at attention. Now, in something well beyond fury, the Colonel drew his saber, swung it back over his head and stomped toward Thruston seething through his gritted teeth, “I will make you obey my orders!”
As the soldiers in front quickly parted a swath for the raging Colonel, he demanded, “What are you standing on?” When the Colonel came face to chest with the gentle giant, Thruston looked down on the Colonel, about two feet below and calmly said, “I’m standing on the ground.”
Thruston hasn’t always lived within the city limits of Mt. Vernon. More than 20 years ago – in 1888, he and his wife, Mary, came here from Missouri and bought a 100-acre farm about 10 miles to the east. He made a good living off that farm until recently, when he moved into town after his wife died.
Every person in Mt. Vernon probably has their own special story about Thruston. We all know he’s been the lead flag bearer in nearly every one of our parades for years. We know he’s toured with the circus troops over the years, billed as “The World’s Tallest Man.” Of course, it is awfully hard to prove that Thruston is, indeed, the tallest man on the planet. But, looking way up at him, most folk just kind of take his word on it. This reporter has a story about Thruston few have probably heard about.
As Thruston will tell you, he gets really tired of hearing all the “tall jokes” at his expense. He’s listened to them all his life. Not too long ago, a visitor – about 5 feet 6 inches tall who had never seen Thruston before – walked up to him with a smirk on his face asked, “Say, big fellow, how’s the weather up there?” Thruston looked way down on him and spewed saliva all over the area and said, “It’s raining.”
Thruston got back from the reunion yesterday.
A little over a week after Henry Clay Thruston returned from that Confederate veterans reunion in Memphis in June 1909, he was dead. It wasn’t death with glory and fanfare befitting a warrior giant. It was death unheralded, humble and quick.
He was at the supper table on Friday evening, July 2, 1909, at his home in Mt. Vernon, surrounded by his son, his daughter-in-law and his grandson. He had just picked up a biscuit from the basket on the table. With his other hand, he retrieved a pat of butter with his dinner knife. So, with a biscuit in one hand and a pat of butter on a knife in the other, he simply sighed, lowered his massive head and slumped into his chair at the supper table and died. Heart failure.
Thruston could not be buried quickly because the undertaker had no coffin large enough. An 8-foot coffin had to be delivered by train from Texarkana, 100 miles away. Then the hearse had a problem. The rear door couldn’t be closed. The coffin was too long. So, the hearse went through Mt. Vernon and on to burial at Edwards Cemetery in nearby Mt. Pleasant with the rear door open and a worker holding on to the coffin. An unusual story about a large historical figure in Southern Memories.