Churches all over New England were drawing crowds in 1908. A well-known saloonkeeper, self-proclaimed thief and alcoholic had jumped on the lecture circuit, and his God-fearing audiences hung on every word.
Frederick Augustus Bailey was born on June 12, 1842, in Burrillville, the son of Eliphalet and Ann (Mavis) Bailey. As a young adult, he decided to join the Army, serving with Company I of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers. Despite being taken prisoner at the Battle of Bull Run and later released, he decided to serve a stint in the Navy once his Army requirements were fulfilled.
He served out his time on guard ships before being enticed to join a circus while living in Georgia in 1870. For several months he worked as a canvas man and stayed with the show when it was sold at auction to John O’Brien later that year.
O’Brien was in partnership with Phineas Barnum, who was touring his Barnum’s World Fair. The show was in need of a giant and Bailey fit the shoes. Standing at 6 feet, 7 inches tall and weighing well over 200 pounds, he took on the role of “The Belgian Giant” in Barnum’s popular freak show.
Another year passed and Bailey was ready to move on again, this time to manage a roadhouse in Philadelphia. The pursuit proved to be financially successful. Fast girls and cold intoxicants were easy sellers and Bailey had no qualms about cashing in. Before long, he had the best of everything money could buy.
Before the turn of the century, he returned to his home state and bought an impressive residence along the Hartford Turnpike in Johnston. On May 30, 1890, the 48-year-old married 26-year-old Isabella Montgomery. A former wife, Charlotte Russ, had passed away in Pennsylvania just five years after the wedding, leaving him with a newborn son.
A large sign was hung upon his new home announcing “Big Shang Bailey’s Place,” playing on a nickname of which sources cannot not agree on the origin. Inside, the tallest man in the state maintained overindulgence in the extreme – girls and gambling, drunks and fighting – but the money kept coming in. Musician John Miner lived with the family and entertained in the bar. Lillian Blackmar, who also resided there, did all the housework while a third boarder, George Bump, took care of Bailey’s expensive horses.
Then one day, in February 1908, Bailey was tallying up the day’s income when he suddenly felt what he believed to be a spiritual awakening. He looked around his bar, this place where sinfulness had made him a fortune, and tore his license to sell liquor off the wall. He tore down the risqué pictures and carried 60 gallons of booze out into the road and dumped it out.
He began tearing away at the boards that made up the bar, destroyed his slot machines, threw his pipe away and placed advertisements in over 20 newspapers declaring that Shang Bailey’s place was closed for good.
Still, his conscience haunted him. After Bull Run, he had shown authorities a scar on his leg and claimed he had been shot. Since that time, he had collected $1,400 in pensions for his untruthfulness. He paid it all back.
He thought about the drunken customers he had easily overcharged over the years. He hunted them down and gave them their money back.
He remembered items he had stolen, people he had scammed in one way or another to better his lot in life. He remedied every situation until all his riches were nearly gone.
Bailey knew that if God could make him see the light, salvation was possible for anyone. Deciding to become an evangelist, “The Converted Saloon Keeper” began to tour the East Coast.
By this time, the consumption that had plagued him since he was 43 years old was more harshly taking its toll. The 66-year-old giant, with his thick beard and moustache nearly a foot in length, stood feebly before the crowds and appealed to all wrong-doers. Of his own transgressions, he was confident in God’s forgiveness of him by the time he died on April 16, 1913.
Shang Bailey, the wild man turned man of God, was buried in Grace Church Cemetery in Providence.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.