The “Alton Giant’s” ties to Chesterfield
Several issues ago, I wrote about my great-grandmother’s cedar chest. My grandmother also owned one; this was a very common storage method for lifelong, prized possessions. This was long before the basements full of plastic storage bins many of us have today. Shortly after my grandmother passed away, my mom and I sat down to sort through the items in her chest. My grandmother meticulously attached a small piece of paper to each item with a straight pin, describing what it was. It held many of the things you would expect: baby clothes from those long since grown and holiday cards from years past.
As we sorted, we came across something that stopped us in our tracks. Surely this hardened piece of crushed paper napkin couldn’t be the actual item described in her small, precise handwriting. It clearly said, “From Bob Wadlow on his 21st birthday – Feb 22, 1939.” As we peeled back the napkin’s layers, it became evident that the last layers would not *unpeel* as yes, it was an actual piece of cake from 1939. So, if you think that cedar chests don’t really work as bug deterrents, think again!
Robert Wadlow was known to the world as the Alton Giant—the tallest man who ever lived. He still holds the record to this day. The statistics are just as astounding today as they were in the newspapers of the time. At his tallest he measured 8 feet 11.1 inches, the result of an overactive pituitary gland—a condition which most likely could be treated today. At 6 months old, he weighed 30 pounds and while not overweight for his height, he weighed 495 at his heaviest. His size required constant adaptation of his furniture, clothing and even the family car.
To my family he was “Bob,” a close friend. My family knew the Wadlows through my great-uncle’s auto business and sponsorship of a racecar in Alton. He and Robert’s father, Harold, became friends. I remember both my grandma and my great-aunt talking at length about what a kind and gentle person he was, despite often being in considerable pain and obviously very different from those around him.
He was an intelligent young man who enrolled in law school and sought gainful employment as a spokesman for the Peters Shoe Co., a division of St. Louis’ International Shoe Co. After all, this was a time when “giants” and people with other differences were seen as curiosities, often touring with circuses or unable to find employment at all. Wadlow turned down numerous offers from circuses, although he did appear with The Barnum and Bailey Circus for six days after a financial offer too tempting to resist. Considering one pair of his size 37 shoes cost nearly $1500 in today’s currency, it is difficult to blame him.
He took his reputation very seriously for someone so young. In 1939, Dr. Charles Humberd made disparaging remarks about Wadlow in the Journal of the American Medical Association, saying he had a “soured attitude,” despite never fully examining him, instead claiming only to visit the family while on vacation. Wadlow sued the doctor for libel. During court breaks, ever on display, he happily signed autographs for local children. Despite teachers and other doctors attesting to Wadlow’s gentleness, kindness and shy demeanor, Wadlow lost the case. Nevertheless, at the time the suit was groundbreaking, as it exposed attitudes of the time—attitudes few people stuck up for. The editor of the Journal of the AMA, Dr. Morris Fishbein openly admitted under oath, “I think Robert is a freak.“ He elaborated that anyone who was extraordinary in appearance or otherwise unusual was considered by medical men to be freaks.
In a scrapbook my grandma kept, there are Christmas cards from the Wadlows, as well as newspaper articles and photographs. Every Spring the Wadlows would come to my family’s house, in Chesterfield, for a get together. Each year was marked with a photograph outside the home that used to be on Olive Blvd near Hog Hollow Rd. Sadly, the photos with Robert in them end with April of 1940 as he lived only a few months after that, passing away from a foot infection at the young age of twenty-two, buried in a casket so long it protruded from the hearse.
Sometimes the greatest sign of a man (or woman) is to face adversity with kindness and positivity. It’s good to look back on those who set positive examples of what it meant to be thoughtful and generous and to stand up for yourself. But, perhaps we don’t need to save their birthday cake for 77 years?