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Flashback: Robert Wadlow, the ‘Alton Giant’ who at age 21 was over 8 feet tall, fought for his dignity in court

Flashback: Robert Wadlow, the ‘Alton Giant’ who at age 21 was over 8 feet tall, fought for his dignity in court

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The Alton Giant, Robert Wadlow

Robert Wadlow, 10, right, of Alton, poses with an 11-year-old boy of average height in 1929. Wadlow, who has an over-active pituitary gland that causes his radical growth, is 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 241 pounds. He wears size 25 shoes, made to order. (AP Photo)

The police had their hands full getting the 8-foot-8.25-inch Robert Wadlow in and out of a Missouri courtroom where he was suing Dr. Charles Humberd for diagnosing him as a “freak.”

Even though an elevator was right outside the chamber serving as a courtroom, “police must plow a path through the crowd even that distance to let Robert stoop through the doors and into his ‘ride’ downstairs after each session of the trial,” the Alton (Illinois) Evening Telegraph reported on March 9, 1939.

Schoolchildren passed Wadlow pieces of paper to autograph. In the lobby, a mob awaited Wadlow, as did a traffic jam on the streets of St. Joseph, Missouri.

Every step of the way, the press trailed the 21-year-old. The hubbub was nothing new for Wadlow. It was his celebrity that brought him and Humberd together in federal court.

By the time of his premature death in 1940, Wadlow had gown to 8 feet, 11.1 inches. He still holds the Guinness World Records title as the tallest human being who ever lived — for whom there is credible evidence.

“This giant has received much newspaper and magazine publicity; my clippings about and photographs of him, over a period of eight years, fill two large scrapbooks,” Humberd wrote in an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

To see the “Alton Giant,” as the Tribune and others called him, Humberd went on June 2, 1936, to the Wadlow family home in Alton, an Illinois city along the Mississippi River about 10 miles from the outskirts of St. Louis.

Afterward, Humberd pronounced Robert Wadlow “colossal and stupendous in bulk, truly Gargantuan in all his proportions.”

The doctor’s visit didn’t end well. He wanted to do a medical examination of the young man, who had just finished his first semester of college. But Wadlow’s father ordered Humberd to leave.

In the journal article, Humberd offered his observations. “His expression is surly and indifferent, and he is definitely inattentive, apathetic, and disinterested, unfriendly and antagonistic,” he wrote of Robert Wadlow. “He has been bothered much by the curious, who want to see such a freak.”

Wadlow’s father, Harold, gave his account of his son’s quality of life, as relayed by Frederic Fadner in the book “The Gentleman Giant: The Biography of Robert Pershing Wadlow.”

He said he always acted in his son’s best interests, adding: “I am sure that he died with complete confidence in us.”

Some people wondered if Robert Waldow was being exploited. His father arranged for appearances with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and also contracted for his son to be the traveling promoter of a shoe company responsible for his custom-size shoes.

In a 1984 column, a Tribune writer recalled seeing Robert Wadlow make an appearance in his Wisconsin town in the mid-1930s: “One of his giant shoes, size 39, had been displayed in a local shoe store window for the previous week or so. It was an unbelievable thing, and it now rested on top of the truck cab where everyone could see it. It seemed big enough to be used as a boat.”

One thing was beyond dispute: Wadlow perennially outgrew his clothing, and the replacement cost escalated accordingly.

His weight at birth was comparable to that of his younger brothers and sisters. But his dimensions rapidly changed.

At age 10, the Evening Telegraph reported, a 6-foot-8 Wadlow received a size 21 pair of shoes that cost $30. (Adjusted for inflation, they would cost $461 today.) At 17, he could stand with his head out of the water at the deep end of the YMCA pool. In pickup basketball games, players would feed him the ball, and he would drop it through the net.

But he was like other kids his age. A Boy Scout, Wadlow was into photography and collected stamps.

Doctors attributed his dysfunctional growth to a hyperactive pituitary gland. Now the condition can be treated, but not then.

By 1936, the cost to his parents of feeding and clothing him had become unmanageable, as the Evening Telegraph reported: “So it has become necessary for the Wadlows to do something about earning some money through Robert to help keep up the expense, and to prepare for his future.”

Harold Wadlow dedicated himself to booking his son’s personal appearances. He struck a deal with Ringling Bros. to have Robert Wadlow join the circus for some stops on its national tour.

His father described the gig to the Evening Telegraph: “When we were about to appear, all light went off, and the ‘spot’ was turned on the center ring. ... Then we walked out into the spotlight and stood around for a time while we were introduced. After that we walked off.”

On behalf of the Peters’ Shoe Co. and the International Shoe Co., Robert Wadlow appeared at stores and state fairs. The money was good, but the travel was exhausting. His father drove a seven-passenger car, with several seats removed to accommodate the younger Wadlow.

In Waynesboro, Virginia, Wadlow mounted a flatbed truck outside the White Bros. department store for a crowd of spectators. “Robert’s hands are enormous, and the cane he carries resembles a full-grown mountain oak,” a local reporter wrote.

He wore metal braces on his legs because his limbs couldn’t support his bulk. Hotels at overnight stops had to improvise something big enough for him to sleep on. When he came to St. Joseph for the 1939 trial, a carpenter partially took apart two beds to combine them.

Wadlow was asking for $100,000 in damages, claiming Dr. Humberd had damaged his reputation through defamatory statements, the Tribune reported. As one of its rebuttal witnesses, the defense called Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Wadlow was also suing the AMA and Time magazine for echoing Humberd’s comments.

“We accept that term (freak) as fitting any person who is out of the ordinary,” Fishbein testified.

The defense also brought into court two towering men. Glenn Hyder, who stood 7 feet, testified that the doctor was “an outstanding authority on giantism.” Jack Earle, 7 feet, 6 inches tall, said he asked Wadlow: “How’s the weather up there?”

Wadlow’s parents and teachers said he was obedient, bright and interested in Chinese checkers.

Looking out the window at the crowd hoping to see Wadlow, the judge said: “Our public is waiting.”

Following deliberations, the jury ruled that he hadn’t been libeled. The other lawsuits were dismissed.

Of course, the Wadlows were disappointed, but Robert Wadlow had to make a living. The following year, in 1940, he appeared at Manistee, Michigan’s National Forest Festival. But a leg brace had bitten into his foot and left him with an infection, and it was a boiling hot July Fourth.

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When Wadlow reported feeling ill, his father told him to go back to the car. He was taken to a hotel; doctors said his bulk made transporting him to a hospital too risky.

“The youthful giant’s condition grew steadily worse, and physicians gave him a blood transfusion,” the Tribune reported.

Robert Wadlow died at age 22, weighing 491 pounds.

Eighteen men were needed to carry his 855-pound casket. Thousands came to Alton to pay their respects.

Fearing souvenir hunters or the morbidly curious would exhume the corpse, his father had his son’s burial vault sealed off with concrete.

There, Robert Wadlow found respite from the inane questions that plague a celebrity: “Do you like spinach?” No. “Do you have a girlfriend?” He didn’t want one.

One of the few times the Alton Giant shared a candid take on life was in response to a question about one of his brothers:

“No, I don’t want my little brother to be as big as I am. He’ll have more fun if he isn’t.”

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