JOHANN PETURSSON – The Viking Giant

JOHANN PETURSSON - The Viking Giant

At one point, Johann Petursson was the tallest man alive. He was officially dethroned during his lifetime by the colossal Robert Wadlow but he is arguably the better remembered giant due to his showmanship, personality and longevity.

Johann was born in Dalvik, Iceland on February 9, 1913. He began life as Johann Svarfaelingur, the third child of nine and the only one of extraordinary size. By the time he was twenty-years-old, Johann stood a purported eight feet, eight inches tall and wore a size 24 shoe. He was a gentle man, a man of soft words and warmth. Despite towering over them, children loved Johann and he was more than happy to hoist them onto his shoulder.

During his adolescence Johann was a popular young man, due more to his outgoing personality than his height. In fact, he wasn’t treated as a ‘big deal’ in his town and the locals barely raised an eyebrow when the giant walked by. Petursson was just another one of the lads, well liked by all. Unfortunately, due to his height, he was unemployable in his hometown. Johann could not squeeze into the tiny local shops.

In 1934, Johann left for Denmark and it was there that he realized he could earn a living simply by exhibiting himself. He had a fine suit made to fit his mammoth frame, his measurements were taken by a team of three men, and he then set off in search of fame and fortune.

Johann Petursson proved to be quite successful throughout Europe. He performed in music halls in an act with two dwarfs. His tiny partners would play miniature accordions while Petursson stood between them and played instruments of enormous proportion. The act continued for several years until World War II. During the conflict Petursson found himself stranded in Copenhagen where he took a job in the shipyards and waited out the war.

Unlike many giants, who are actually quite physically frail, by all reports Johann was in good health and incredibly strong. His time at the shipyard went quickly and effortlessly. At the end of the war Petursson resumed touring Europe until he was discovered by John Ringling, of the Ringling Bros., and was contracted to appear in the United States.

Johann Petursson began touring with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show during their 1948 season. Dressed in his Edwardian top hat and tails he began to command a salary of $200 a week. He also began selling giant-sized rings as souvenirs. While these rings fit his finger, one could also pass a silver dollar through them.

Petursson’s time with Ringling Bros. was brief. He soon joined a sideshow managed by Glen Porter and it was under the management of Porter that Johann would develop his most famous trademark. Porter, aware of Johann’s Icelandic and Nordic roots had his wife craft a costume consisting of Viking regalia and a giant helmet. Johann became known as The Viking Giant and his marketability instantly soared.

Eventually, Johann proved so popular and such a shrewd businessman that he broke away from management and went into business for himself. Petursson created a ‘Single-O’ show, a travelling show in which he was the only attraction. He saved over $50,000 in just five years which was a sizeable amount considering the era. Johan then decided to exhibit his enormous dimensions on the movie screen. In 1950 he starred opposite Jayne Mansfield as the prehistoric giant Guadi in Prehistoric Women. Thirty years later, he was featured in Carny, opposite Jodie Foster and Gary Busey. In 1981, he was featured in the astounding documentary Being Different with fellow marvel Robert Melvin.

At the age of 69, an incredible age for a giant, Johann initially retired to Gibsonton, Florida. His health, however, proved to falter quickly and soon he joined his brother in his beloved hometown of Dalvik. Johann Petursson died there on November 26, 1984. A museum now sits not far from his grave. His possessions still draw curious crowds and a stir sense of wonder.

Watch a video of Johann here.

Author, researcher and an expert of the odd, J. Tithonus Pednaud has been chronicling bizarre history and highlighting the lives of those born exceeding different for over a decade.

22 Comments

  • Reply April 9, 2008

    Anonymous

    I own two giants rings from Johann K Petursson.

  • Reply April 13, 2008

    Anonymous

    It’s a really lovely museum I’ve been there quite often and never really get sick of it. He really was a true Icelandic viking
    P.S. at the end of your article you misspell Davlík and write Davlík.

  • Reply October 26, 2008

    Bryndis

    Johann really was very nice to children – I will always remember him fondly, despite getting in trouble in elementary school for insisting that giants really truly did exist. Luckily, my parents were able to corroborate my story! His ring and publicity photo were quite the sensation in class the next day.

  • Reply May 2, 2009

    Randy Palson

    I have a ring and a post card of Johann wearing his icelandic costume.

  • Reply May 30, 2009

    Nadine J

    In 1975, my husband and I moved onto the street where Johann lived in Riverview, Fl. He called me “the little girl” (I’m just 5 ft.) and I remember he played Santa in Gibsonton at the Showman’s Club every Christmas. He was really a nice fellow.

  • Reply June 24, 2009

    Curt

    I found a ring with his name on it!!

  • Reply September 27, 2009

    Roger W

    I saw Mr. Petursson in 1963 at the Ohio State Fair. After the show, he sat and talked with me for a few minutes. I was a little surprised that he would take time to talk to a member of his show’s audience, and was totally surprised by the size of his hand when he shook mine (I’m a pretty good sized fellow at 6’1″). His hand just plain dwarfed mine. He was truly a man to look up to.

  • Reply October 31, 2009

    Sara

    he seemed a lovley man I would have loved to have known him!!

  • Reply November 26, 2009

    William Robert Hayes

    I was on The Monarch Shows and I remember Johann Petursson he also played the Danville Ill. County Fair with us and he was a really great person. I can remember the big ring that you could push a silver dollar through his ring with out the dollar touching the ring. I never will forget the cab of his truck that he drove I could stand up in side the cab of the truck and never bump my head.Any would have enjoy meeting him.A great man he was. Little Bob

  • Reply January 15, 2010

    Craig Canfield

    Unbelievable! I was just sitting here tossing back a few cold ones with a friend of mine and we started talking about the Ohio state fair. My friend (Steve Clark)told me this story of how him & a friend of his (Rick)were taking a short cut behind the side show tents to get to the midway. Rick made it through to the midway,but shook the side of the tent while doing so. Steve was not so lucky! A large hand grabbed him by the ankle & pulled him under and into the tent. To his surprise he was then hoisted up by the back of his pants only to come face to face with Johaan! The giant gave him a good scolding about sneaking around places he shouldn’t. How good is that? Johann put the fear of God in him that day! Steve was 13 years old at that time.
    42 years later he is telling me this story! I (Craig) decided to look Johann up on my computer. It took me awhile, but I found your site!
    Great site! Steve is very pleased that I came across this! It confirms everything he was telling me. Unbelievable!

  • Reply May 19, 2010

    Bob Stieff

    Was he ever with Royal American Shows? I seem to remember him on that carnival from the 50′s and had a ring I purchased and removed from his finger…sadly lost now.

  • Reply July 17, 2010

    mendel

    Im looking at this site and reading your comments witch make me horrified. The fact how this persons are presented as freaks and how exited you guys respond to that. People like you are the real freaks. It’s much more interesting to read the comments by you sickos then about those people with handicaps.

  • Reply May 5, 2011

    Jim Pierce

    PLEASE READ TO THE BOTTOM OF THIS AND LEARN ABOUT THIS WONDERFUL FRIEND!!!
    In 1969 when my wife and I were newly weds we rented a place on Harvey St. in Riverview,Fl. We lived directly across the street from Johann. I grew up less than two miles away my entire life to tha point in time. His transportation was a semi tractor. He couldn’t fit in a car. He was with the state fairs at the time billed as the Viking Giant. Our landlords, Arnold and Louise Cook took care of him when he wintered in Fl. Louise made most of his clothes and one day we were over and she had just finished a short sleeve shirt for him. She had my wife put it on and put her arms straight out. the sleeves came past her wrists, almost to her fingers. The bottom hem of it came about half way between her knees and her ankles. A regular coffee cup and saucer looked like a child’s tea set in his hand. He had a very delicate stomach and Louise cooked for him. A four foot chain link fence struck him about mid thigh. When he would see my wife and I coming over to the landlords place, he lived next door to them, he would always say here come the kiddies. He was the sweetest, most gentle and kind man you could ever hope to meet. We got to know him well and he was just Johann to us,not a giant, just our friend Johann. We were saddened when we learned of his death even though it had been years since we had seen him. Just wanted to chime in and let you see him from our perspective. WE WILL ALWAYS HAVE A PLACE IN OUR HEARTS FOR JOHANN. HE WAS A SPECIAL MAN!!!!

  • Reply May 21, 2011

    sarah

    @Mendel, it seems like you commented without actually reading any of the comments posted. Actually, it doesn’t seem that way, it’s just blatantly obvious.
    I’ve never had the impression that people come to this site to make fun of these people, in fact, I see just the opposite.
    The only comments I am reading are fond memories of this mans life and the impact he made on people. In fact, that’s just about what I read about all of these unique individuals. The only one spreading any hate around here seems to be you. Maybe you are the “sicko”?

    Anyway, I would have loved to have met Johann, he seemed to be suck a kind and gentle, not to mention fascinating, man!

  • Reply July 25, 2011

    Neil Davis

    I grew up seeing Johann on many occations at the sideshow of his.I remember him saying come up and shake hands with old Johann I`m not gonna eat you.We [My older brother Gale and myself] would always shake his HUGE hand.He REALLY was a pleasant fellow to visit with.Now an adult I collect on the sideshow and it`s performers.I am proud to say I have quite a collection on J.P.including costumes.shoes,banners,photos,rings and a LOT of other goodies.There will never be another Johann.

    • Reply April 9, 2012

      bridget stumbo

      i have an enormous chippendale chair ,for years iv searched for any info yesterday i was pointed to a ripleys article ,where there was a pic of a chair that looks just like mine and the same size it was made for johann was wondering if you may have more info on it

      • Reply April 10, 2012

        J Tithonus Pednaud

        I don’t have and specific knowledge on your chair. I know that the ‘enormous chair’ has been a common feature in a lot of dime museums and roadside attractions. Quite often they were not actually associated with anyone in particular. Even more often, owners and promoters would claim the chair belonged to a famous giant for promotional purposes. Good luck on your research and thank you for visiting.

  • Reply August 4, 2011

    erie

    My mom and dad meet Johann years ago and remarked on his height. As a young boy it’s hard to imagine just how much taller he was to other people.I happned to be looking for something and came across one of the rings with his name and picture on it.I decided to look it up on the web site.I thing he was an amazing man.

    • Reply April 10, 2012

      J Tithonus Pednaud

      He was an amazing man indeed. I don’t think I’ve heard a single negative thing about him. He was great in stature in many ways.

  • Reply November 19, 2011

    Cindy

    My dad told me about Johann and that he had Johann ring that was so big a silver dollar would go through it (he lost his Johann ring in a devoice and I would love to find him a new one).

    • Reply April 10, 2012

      J Tithonus Pednaud

      I see Johann rings on eBay from time to time. Later in his career he sold plastic rings, but you can still find the occasional metal ones. The plastic ones usually sell under $40 while his old metal ring can reach as high as $100.

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