When I was a kid, one of my favorite books to read was the Guinness Book of World Records. Nowadays it’s a picture-filled hardcover book, more style than substance, but back in the day it was text-heavy and fascinating. The sports records chapter was where I first became aware of Wilt Chamberlain; the nature chapter, where I learned about the peregrine falcon being the fastest bird. The book also had a dry sense of humor; a writeup of the longest career as a gravedigger (Johann Heinrich Karl Thieme of Aldenburg, Germany, 50 years, 23,311 graves) ended, “In 1826, his understudy dug his grave.” An entry on Hetty Green, world’s greatest miser, concludes, “She herself lived off cold oatmeal because she was too mean to heat it, and died of apoplexy in an argument over the virtues of skimmed milk.”
For me, the most fascinating chapter was the first, on the human being. This is where the reader learned about what records people held that had to do with their body, from breath-holding to smallest waist to fastest talkers. The photos in this section were especially memorable; the image of Billy and Benny McCrary, the world’s heaviest twins, on their motorcycles is one I’ll take with me to the grave. Same with Murari Mohan Aditya, he of the piercing eyes and tremendous fingernails.
But in my family, two names made a really big impact. Coincidentally, both belonged to men who were really big. One was Robert Earl Hughes, the world’s heaviest man. At 1,069 pounds, he doesn’t even rank in the top ten anymore, but to me he was the epitome of “fat.” I marveled at the sentence, “He was buried in a coffin the size of a piano case.” To this day I’ve never seen a piano case, but I don’t have to see one to know it’s big.
The other was Robert Wadlow, the world’s tallest man. At the time of his death, aged 22, he was eight feet, eleven point one inches tall. This photo was the one the Guinness book used most often; it shows him with his brothers Eugene and Harald (sic). The photo’s caption closes with the wry note that “Robert is the one wearing glasses.”
Later I learned that my grandfather saw Robert Wadlow in a movie theater, his legs stretched out over the two rows in front of him. That made Wadlow that much more real to me, more than a record in a book (although I mistakenly called him “Robert Waldo” for years). Reading more about him, it becomes clear he may have been a giant, but he was no freak.
For one thing, his parents did everything they could to give him as normal a life as possible. They turned away scores of offers circuses made to display him, and he went to a normal school in Alton, Illinois, where he was completely accepted by his peers, getting above-average grades and developing hobbies like listening to the radio, stamp collecting, and photography (he was kind of a nerd, if you think about it). Meanwhile, he kept growing. Five foot six at age five; six foot two at age nine.
When he was eleven, his father took him to doctors in St. Louis to find out what the story was. “Examination,” the doctors later wrote, “was accomplished with considerable difficulty. The boy was so shy as to appear depressed and almost stupid. He was extremely modest and would allow only partial exposure of his body. He became sulky and finally wept when x-ray pictures were suggested.” They also learned that he had a hyperpituary gland that kept pumping out the human growth hormone while also suppressing puberty. That meant that the body couldn’t send its signals to the gland to stop all that HGH, so Robert kept growing, an average of three inches a year.
While he was doing normal teenaged things like joining the Boy Scouts and the German club in his high school, more offers poured in to put him on display, until in 1937 the Ringling Brothers Circus finally made him one he couldn’t refuse. But he and his family made a lot of demands – no tricks to make him look taller than he was, like top hats, lifts, or other unusual clothing (just a suit, albeit one made with ten yards of fabric); no association with the sideshow, just the main ring; no more than two appearances a day of three minutes each, only in Boston and New York. Even with all these guidelines, Wadlow was a very popular sight.
He went to college for a semester, but his first time out of the embrace of his home town of Alton saw him getting more stares and objectification than he was used to; he also had to deal with the difficulty of traversing the icy sidewalks, difficult enough when you’re not eight and a half feet tall, made even more so by his poor circulation and lack of feeling in his lower legs. By this time he was walking with a cane and leg braces; there’s footage of him walking on YouTube, and the whole process looks painful. It didn’t help that people used to kick him in the shins, checking to see if he was actually on stilts. But Robert took it in stride; when asked during a radio interview if it bothered him when people stared, he answered, with a voice sounding like it came from the bottom of a well, “No, I just overlook them.”
Wadlow wanted to be a lawyer, but after traveling the country as a goodwill ambassador for the International Shoe Company (they custom-made his shoes; they would cost $100, but he got them gratis), he considered working in sales and promotion. But it wasn’t to be. Shortly after his 8′ 11.1″ measurement, he got a blister from a poorly fitting brace. It got infected, and on July 15, 1940, Robert Wadlow died.
His funeral was held in Alton, where the city hall flag flew at half-staff, the funeral home stayed open for 48 hours straight to accommodate the crowds – more than thirty thousand people – and the town businesses halted sales for five minutes to honor his passing. When he was buried, his family had his coffin buried in a vault, and then the vault covered in concrete, so no grave robbers would desecrate his final resting place. They then destroyed most of his clothing and personal belongings, not wanting them to be exploited by anyone who might display them as memorabilia of a freak. A few of his shoes still survive; I saw one at the old Guinness Museum in the Empire State Building back in the day.
There’s a statue of Robert Wadlow in Alton; unlike most statues, it’s life size, and people come to the town to pose by it and learn more about the gentle giant. That’s one thing I was struck by in researching this piece; over and over again, people talked about Wadlow’s kindness, his patience, his placid nature. I really liked that those who knew him really loved and admired him, that he wasn’t bitter about his fate, and that he really did bring good will to all the places he went. Nancy Alexander, a board member at the Alton Museum of History and Art, said that “even when he died he was still teaching us lessons. One of his favorite phrases was ‘Stand tall and be the best you can be.’ And he certainly did that throughout his life.”