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The world’s biggest man visits Farmville

By Dr. Ray A. Gaskins

Professor Emeritus, Hampden-Sydney College

He was bigger than Goliath, the Philistine leviathan of Biblical fame. He was taller than Bill Walton (who was 7 feet, 2 inches tall, weighing 235 pounds), who made it his mission to find out how many living people in the world were over seven feet tall, and that number turned out to be 30.

He was both taller and heavier than Shaquille O’Neal and Yao Ming.

When he arrived in Farmville on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 1939, Robert Pershing Wadlow was 8 feet 9 inches tall and weighed 475 pounds. He was only 21 years old and doctors projected that he would soon reach the nine-foot mark, growing at the rate of more than an inch a year.

Born Feb. 22, 1918, in Alton, Ill., Robert was the best-documented giant in history. During his lifetime, the “Giant of Illinois” was measured twice annually by medical doctors. When he was last measured on June 27, 1940, he was 8 feet 11 inches tall, weighted 491 pounds, had a 48 inch waist, a 19 inch neck, a 9 inch 6 foot wing-span, and wore pants with an out seam of 5 feet.

Robert was born during World War I, which explains why he was named after “Black Jack” Pershing, the American General of the armies. Robert’s father was of average height (5 feet 11 inches tall) as were his mother, two brothers and two sisters. Doctors thought that Robert’s size was caused by an over-active pituitary gland.

Robert came to Farmville as a guest of Emanuel Weinberg to advertise a brand of shoes sold at The Hub, and he was a natural for the job.

Not only was he the biggest man in the world, he wore the biggest shoes in the world — size 37AA. He was accompanied by his father, Harold, and his publicity man. (The Hub Department Store opened in Farmville in 1921 and lasted until after 2005.)

From noon-1 p.m. the trio, together with Farmville Mayor W.C. Fitzpatrick, all stood on the flatbed of a truck on Main Street, between Second and Third streets and addressed one of the largest crowds to ever assemble here.

Surrounding communities as far away as Crewe became ghost towns on this day as everyone flocked to Farmville to see the giant.

After a brief introduction by Fitzpatrick, the giant, his father and his publicity man all addressed the crowd through loudspeakers. Traffic came to a total standstill in downtown Farmville as people, unable to find a legal parking place, abandoned their cars and ran to catch a glimpse of the giant.

When at home in Alton, Robert slept on a custom-made 10-foot bed and sat in a custom-made giant chair. On the road, he traveled in a seven-passenger touring car and slept on two double beds pushed together in hotels. In those days hotel rooms had transoms over the doors and Wadlow got a kick out of walking down the halls and looking through the transoms. He had to wear ankle braces and used a 5-foot cane to help support his great weight when he walked.

While in Farmville, he ate a normal-sized lunch of ham and eggs at the Continental Coffee Shop on Main Street. He used ordinary tableware, which looked like doll house toys in his huge hands.

He said that, contrary to popular belief, he “seldom ate much more than the average person,” however, doctors said that 8,000 calories per day were required to maintain his great weight. (A coffee shop opened in the Continental Hotel in 1926, about 10 years after the hotel first opened, and continued until the hotel was destroyed by fire on Oct. 22, 1957.)

Another stop in Farmville was the Masonic Lodge at the corner of Main and Second Streets. Robert was a Master Mason and the Farmville Masons wanted to see his Freemason ring — the largest ever made.

After Robert graduated from Alton High School in 1936, he entered Shurtleff College with the intention of studying law. But after his 1936 U.S. tour with the Ringling Brothers Circus, he became such a celebrity that he dropped out of college and went to work for the International Shoe Company promoting their line of shoes.

According to his father, Robert neither drank nor smoked and was thus the ideal All-American boy.

Robert developed a septic blister on his right ankle from a poorly fitted brace and, in spite of a massive blood transfusion, died at 1:30 a.m. in a hotel in Manistee, Mi., on July 15, 1940. He was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Alton in a coffin measuring 10 feet, 9 inches long, 32 inches wide and 30 inches deep.

NB: Life-sized statues of Robert Pershing Wadlow exist at the Alton Museum of History and Art in Illinois, at Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum in Farmington Hills, Michigan, and at several Guinness Museums and Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museums.

This article has been re-printed from Farmville the Magazine.