A wealthy Missouri farmer and loyal Democrat named Valentine Tapley vowed that if the Republican Abraham Lincoln were elected president, the farmer would never shave again. He kept his promise, and then some. By the time Tapley died, at 80 years old in 1910, his beard was over 12 feet long! Talk about going to great lengths to stage a political protest.
In truth, the man with the prodigious beard had already begun his project well before the 1860 elections. Born in 1830, the oldest son of four children, Tapley reported that he sprouted his first facial hairs when he was 13. He never shaved. By the time he was 20, Tapley had a beard that was so long he had to braid it and tuck it inside his shirt when he worked on the farm. As the beard lengthened, Tapley wrapped it around his body beneath his clothes. Eventually, he would roll up his beard, stuff it inside a silk pouch, and lay the package inside his clothes.
By the time of Lincoln’s election in 1860, Tapley’s beard was already six feet long, so his vow to never shave was hardly a hardship. When Tapley’s beard reached eight feet, it was claimed to be the longest in the world. Tapley was offered a handsome sum of $5,000 (or more than $125,000 in today’s dollars) to partake in an exhibit in a London Museum. He declined.
Local children asked Tapley if they could use his beard for the annual May Pole dance, according to the Hannibal (Missouri) Courier-Post. He declined that request as well.
Tapley was proud of his unusual facial locks. “He dislikes any questions whether they are the longest in the world,” the Newport News reported in 1904. The News described Tapley, at the time 74, as “hale and hearty and lives an active life on the farm.” It also reported that in consideration of his beard, “he will not burn brush or work around a fire.”
Remarkably, Tapley wasn’t the only man in his neighborhood to go to such astonishing lengths with his facial hair. A local judge who’d moved to the area after partaking in the 1849 California Gold Rush, Elijah Gates, had himself grown a seven-foot-long beard. The New York Times interviewed a Missouri congressman about the dueling beardsmen.
“A curious thing about these fellows, and that makes me think a man’s character can be told by his whiskers,” Congressman Champ Clark, of Pikes County, Missouri, told the Times on November 10, 1907. “Elijah Gates is a pugnacious kind of a fellow, not a scrapper or a brawler, you understand, but of a stubborn type of man. His whiskers are right stiff, like a horse’s mane. But Valentine Tapley, his are soft as silk, and Tapley is mild mannered and thoroughly agreeable, one of those unanimous sorts of fellows.”
Mostly, the men kept their beards under wraps, but such an achievement needed to be shared. As Congressman Clark told the Times, “Old man Tapley takes out his once or twice a year for the benefit of his neighbors.”
A photo of Tapley and his beard appeared in the November 2010 issue of Popular Mechanics. “A beard that is more than twice as long as its owner is tall is the boasted possession of Valentine Tapley. … It is exactly 12 ft. long, and has to be wound around the waist or hung about the shoulders to keep it from trailing.”
By the time of the magazine’s publication, Tapley had already passed away. He died on April 3, 1910, at age 80. He was so paranoid that his beard would fall victim to grave robbers that he requested to be buried in a fortified coffin. Gates died on February 9, 1918; he was 83.