Valentine Tapley was wealthy, but he never invested in razors or Republicans.

The Pike County farmer and loyal Democrat vowed not to trim his beard again if Abraham Lincoln was chosen as president in 1860.

Valentine Tapley was wealthy, but he never invested in razors or Republicans.

The Pike County farmer and loyal Democrat vowed not to trim his beard again if Abraham Lincoln was chosen as president in 1860.

Tapley kept the promise, even after Lincoln was re-elected in 1864 and assassinated on April 14, 1865.

In fact, he was so bewitched with the bristles that his will contained a dictate about them.

The bane of barbers everywhere eventually grew to 12-and-a-half-feet — among the most protracted ever — and gained the Spencerburg man national acclaim.

“Mr. Tapley is very proud of his whiskers, and dislikes anyone who questions whether they are the longest in the world,” reported the Newport News Daily Press of Virginia.

“It must make an electric fan hungry just to look at Valentine,” mused the Barbour County Index of Kansas.

 

Stubble start

Tapley was the oldest of two boys and two girls born to Joseph Davis Tapley and Jemimah Cunningham Matson Tapley.

His father moved at age 19 to Missouri from North Carolina in 1818, settling in Ralls County. His mother was 15 when she gave birth to him.

The way Tapley tells it, his tuft actually took off when he was just 13.

“The belief that shaving quickens the growth of a beard is not sustained in the case of Tapley, for he states that he never did shave,” wrote the Daily Capital Journal of Salem, Ore.

By the time he was 20, Tapley had to braid the growth. It continued to grow over the next five years and “he began to wear it inside his shirt,” the Daily Capital Journal reported. “The next provision was to wear it around his body beneath his clothes.”

Tapley made the Lincoln election vow at age 30, when his beard was more than six feet long. But since competition drives many such endeavors, he soon had hirsute buddy from just a few miles away.

Curryville businessman Elijah K. Gates was a Kentucky native who had been part of the 1849 Gold Rush before settling down in Pike County. Six years younger than Tapley, he also decided to put down his razor, although a reason wasn’t specified. Both took the contest in stride.

“The two men were intimate friends, and between them there was friendly rivalry as whisker growers,” reported the Amador Ledger of California.

The Camden Chronicle of Tennessee described Gates as “a broad-shouldered, heavy-set man about five feet seven inches in stature and (weighing) about 180 pounds” who was “a well-preserved, cheerful, affable gentleman” and “prominent in all good works in his neighborhood.” His beard was as “black as the raven’s wing and soft as silk.”

Tapley was three inches taller than Gates and described as “mild mannered and thoroughly agreeable” with a coiffure that also was “soft as silk.”

The Jackson Herald told readers that Tapley claimed he had done little after the Civil War but “pay taxes and vote the Democratic ticket.” He got offers of as much as $5,000 – about $125,000 in today’s dollars -- to display his beard as far away as England, but refused to be a side show freak.

“He cares very little for money and display, preferring his quiet farm life to that of the gaze of the curious,” the Herald wrote.

 

Fears of shears

Having such long locks growing from the chops meant constant care.

The Toledo Blade reported that Gates “preserves his beard by wrapping it from the chin down in a silk braid, rolling it up and wearing it under his shirt bottom.” Tapley did something similar.

In the winter, the hair helped keep the two men warm. In the summer, the beards were “allowed more latitude and their constant flapping in the Missouri breezes does much to cool off the superheated bodies of their owners and possibly others around the family circle,” the Washington Times wrote.

Tapley apparently was once asked by Pike County children to serve as the pole for a May Day dance. He declined with the promise that he and Gates would allow the kids to stroke their beards later in the year.

“The festival is now looked forward to with the same degree of delight as Christmas and other gala occasions,” the Times proclaimed.

Tapley won praise from the Daily Capital Journal for being “hale and hearty” and continuing to work on his farm. However, the paper reported that, for obvious reasons, he would not “burn brush or work around a fire.”

Gates liked to unravel his beard and comb it, while Tapley would unfurl his appendage a couple of times a year to show neighbors how much it had grown.

“The event is regarded very much as the eclipse of the moon would be or the periodical equinoctial storms,” the Times ventured.

By the turn of the century, Tapley’s beard had surpassed 11 feet and Gates’ measured more than nine feet. And attention seemed to grow faster than the cheek fur.

 

Hairy situation

In 1907, a man named S.G. Brinkley in the state which Tapley’s father had left almost 100 years earlier claimed to have the world’s longest beard.

It was only a seven-footer, but the North Carolinian had the audacity to charge people who wanted to see it up to 25 cents each — a little over $6 today.

Riding to the rescue was a clean-shaven congressman who knew Tapley and Gates very well.

Bowling Green lawyer and legislator Champ Clark wasn’t about to let a Tar Heel take advantage of his buddies back home. So, he drafted a letter and gathered the Washington press corps together to unleash a verbal barrage.

The Times said Clark started by pointing out that any man with a seven-foot beard in Missouri “would be regarded as having had a close shave.”

Clark also said he had “come to the conclusion that a man’s character can be told by his whiskers” and that Tapley and Gates were first-rate. When asked about his own smooth face, the astute politician said he had an obligation to represent all of the people from his district.

“Pike County beards are the best on earth, and I am here to defend the claims of Pike County against any North Carolina beard ever sprouted,” Clark nobly said. “Missouri, in beards as in other good things, leads the world.”

Having put Brinkley in his place without a congressional inquiry, Clark told the Times he hoped there would be “no further discussion of the question” and that “the Missouri beard will take its place alongside of the Missouri mule as unapproachable and unapproached.”

Tapley died at age 80 on April 3, 1910. Gates passed at age 83 on Feb. 9, 1918, and is buried in Curryville Cemetery.

 

One more thing

In old age, Tapley had expressed qualms about the afterlife.

Not for himself, though. He ordered that he be buried in Spencersburg Cemetery with his record beard intact. And he added one other caveat.

“During the latter part of his life, he was apprehensive his grave would be robbed for his whiskers, and in his will he made provision for a tomb of extra strength to guard against this,” the Amador Ledger wrote.

Less than two decades later, a Norwegian immigrant named Hans Langseth died in Kensett, Iowa, leaving behind his 17-and-a-half-foot beard. It was donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1967.

The Guinness Book of World Records still considers Langseth’s bro-merang the biggest ever. A website called The World’s Longest Beards now ranks Tapley in fifth place and Gates in ninth.