The tallest man in recorded history, Robert Wadlow, spent less than a year in the circus – and none of it officially in the sideshow. Wadlow, and those who today watch over his legacy, are adamantly against associating Robert with the sideshow or the word freak.
While Wadlow was a giant, he was far from being a freak. In fact aside from his remarkable height he was beyond normal. He was a kind, intelligent man who is still remembered as a gentleman some 60 years after his passing.
He was the first born of a normal sized couple and was born on Feb. 22, 1918. By all accounts, Robert was a normal sized baby at eight pounds and six ounces but he quickly began to grow – within twelve months he ballooned to just over forty-four pounds. At the age of five he was five and a half feet tall and at the age of 9 he stood six feet, two inches.
His family was constantly hounded by showmen begging for a chance to display the human marvel. However the Wadlow family insisted that Robert experience as average an upbringing as possible – given the circumstances. Wadlow even joined the Boy Scouts when he was thirteen and became the largest Boy Scout in history – he was seven feet, one inch and weighed 340 pounds.
In high school Robert was popular and active in many extracurricular activities, even serving as the advertising manager for the yearbook. He was completely accepted by his peers. However, when he attended college he lost that acceptance and struggled with the stares. It bothered him so much that he dropped out and returned to his parents quite penniless.
That is when his brief stint with Ringling Bros. began. His 1937 contract was brief and had strict conditions and terms. First, Robert would only attend shows at Madison Square Garden and the Boston Garden. He would display himself only two times a day for three minutes. He refused to allow any exaggeration of his height via media releases or standard height enhancing sideshow trickery like platform shoes, top hats and trick photography. Furthermore, Robert would only display himself in the centre ring and refused any association with the sideshow. Despite all of these restrictions, Robert proved to be incredibly popular.
Robert was so popular that following his time with Ringling Bros. he signed a fabulous contract with The International Shoe Company. The deal included quite a bit of travel and personal appearances and in just under a year Robert had made over 800 appearances and traveled over 300,000 miles. Perhaps most importantly, the company provided Robert with free shoes – a big deal when you are a size 37 and your shoes cost over $100 a piece.
Robert’s feet always gave him a lot of trouble and due to the weight they had to support, they formed blisters often. Believe it or not, it was a blister that killed the gentle giant.
On July 4th, 1940 – after appearing in a Forth of July – Robert developed a blister. That blister became infected and Robert was unable to check into a hospital as they could not accommodate a man of his size. The infection progressed as Robert was attended to in a makeshift medical facility based in Robert’s hotel room. Surgery, antibiotics and blood transfusions were not enough and Robert passed away on July 15th, 1940 at 1:30am. He was only twenty-two and stood eight feet, eleven inches.
His funeral was attended by 40,000 mourners. It took twelve pallbearers to hoist his thousand pound casket. A life sized statue of Robert Wadlow still stands in his hometown of Alton, Illinois.
It is a testament to a man who was the very definition of a Human Marvel.