Robert Pershing Wadlow (February 22, 1918 – July 15, 1940), also known as the Alton Giant and the Giant of Illinois, was an American who became famous as the tallest person ever in recorded history for whom there is irrefutable evidence.
The Alton and Illinoismonikers reflect that he was born and raised in Alton, Illinois.
He showed no indication of an end to his growth even at the time of his death.
Wadlow was born to Addie Johnson and Harold Wadlow in Alton, Illinois, on February 22, 1918, and was the oldest of five children.
He was taller than his father by the age of 8, and in elementary school they had to make a special desk for him due to his size.
Later years and death
Wadlow’s size began to take its toll: he required leg braces to walk and had little feeling in his legs and feet. Despite these difficulties, he never used a wheelchair.
Wadlow became a celebrity after his 1936 U.S. tour with the Ringling Brothers Circus. In 1938, he did a promotional tour with the International Shoe Company (since 1966 called INTERCO). They provided him his shoes free of charge. Examples of the shoes still exist in several locations throughout the U.S., including Snyder’s Shoe Store of Ludington and Manistee, Michigan, and the Alton Museum of History and Art. He continued participating in tours and public appearances, though only in his normal street clothes. He possessed great physical strength until the last year of his life, when his strength and his health in general began to deteriorate rapidly.
Wadlow was a member of the Order of DeMolay, the Masonic-sponsored organization for young men. He was also a Freemason. In 1939, he petitioned Franklin Lodge #25 in Alton, Illinois, and by late November of that year was raised to the degree of Master Mason under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of Illinois A.F. and A.M.. His Freemason ring was the largest ever made.
One year before his death, Wadlow passed John Rogan as the tallest person ever. On June 27, 1940 (18 days before his death), he was measured at 8 ft 11.1 in (2.72 m) by doctors C. M. Charles and Cyril MacBryde of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
On July 4, 1940, during a professional appearance at the Manistee National Forest Festival, a faulty brace irritated his ankle, causing a blister and subsequent infection. Doctors treated him with a blood transfusion and emergency surgery, but his condition worsened due to an autoimmune disorder, and on July 15, 1940, 11 days after contracting the infection, he died in his sleep at the age of 22. His coffin measured 10 feet 9 inches (3.28 m) long by 32 inches (81 cm) wide by 30 inches (76 cm) deep, weighed 1,000 pounds (450 kg) and was carried by twelve pallbearers and eight assistants. His body was buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Upper Alton, Madison County, Illinois.
A life-size statue of Wadlow stands on College Avenue in Alton, opposite the Alton Museum of History and Art. It was erected in 1986, in honor of the well-known native. Others stand in the Guinness Museums in Niagara Falls, Ontario and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, as well as several of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museums. A group of six life-size models of him, made by artist James Butler, exist, and are shipped and displayed in replica caskets.
Another life-size statue of Wadlow may be viewed at Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum in Farmington Hills, Michigan. In front of it is a small, quarter-operated “TV-box”, which plays a short, documentary movie about his extraordinary short life.
Wadlow is still affectionately known as the “Gentle Giant”.
The 1998 song “The Giant of Illinois”, by The Handsome Family (and later covered by Andrew Bird) honors Wadlow. In 2005, Sufjan Stevens recorded “The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders” about Wadlow for the Illinois album. A picture of Wadlow with his family is featured on the back cover of the VHS version of the Talking Heads music video compilation, Storytelling Giant.