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Mason County Memories


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History Columns are arranged by year of publication in the Ludington Daily News



david k petersen

History Column Dave Petersen

In July of 1940 the Pere Marquette Carferries had it's biggest passenger, Robert Pershing Wadlow. At 8 feet 11 inches the tallest man in the world arrived for his trip over to Ludington on his way to the Manistee Forest Festival. Known as the gentle giant this young man had spent the previous three years traveling about the country with his father as a representative of the International Shoe Company.

Robert, born February 22nd 1918 in Alton Illinois was the first of five children born to Addie and Harold Wadlow. Robert's middle name was given in honor of World War I General Pershing. He gained a lot of attention early in his life, although when he was born he weighed just under 9 pounds and by the time he was 6 months old he weighed 30 pounds.

By age 5 he was 105 pounds and 5'4" in height. By age 10 at 6'2" he doubled in weight and shot up to 210 pounds. It wasn't until 1937 at 8'4" that he exceeded the height of Charles Byrne aka the Irish Giant O'Brian who died in 1783 and had held the title of the tallest man in the world. Before he died in 1940 Robert was 8'11" and 490 pounds.

When Robert was born in 1918 there were no known treatments for an overactive pituitary gland that produced excessive growth hormones and was responsible for his phenomenal growth.

Robert tried to lead as normal of a life as was possible, he collected stamps, was involved in photography, and joined the boy scouts, he attended college. He was the subject of a great deal of media attention growing up and there was a lot of interest in him because of his size and title of the tallest man in the history of the world. By 1937 he had signed to do some limited engagements with Barnum and Baily Circus before going on the road as the goodwill ambassador of the International Shoe Company.

Size 37 shoes large enough to fit Robert were custom made and cost upwards of 100.00 which 80 years ago and during the depression when an hourly wage was 30 cents was a substantial amount of money. At that rate of pay it would take six weeks of long hours to cover that expense alone. Clothing was also a major expense and had to be custom made, at age 18 Robert weighed 390 pounds and had just became the tallest man in the world.

Robert's father quit his job, to take over managing Robert's schedule and modified an old Ford by taking out the front seat. This allowed Robert to sit in the back seat and stretch out his legs. In three years they traveled over 300,000 miles to almost 800 towns in 41 states across the US representing the International Shoe Company who were now providing Roberts shoes for free.

His health was reportedly good in his younger years but as he became older he began to have problems with his feet and in particular with blisters that would form on his feet and heels. He also had little feeling in his feet, this problem plagued him for years and along with an ill fitting brace and possibly shoes contributed to blisters and blood poisoning.

Robert rode in the back of a truck during a long parade on a hot day during the Manistee national Forest Festival. Afterwards he returned to his hotel and collapsed. Since there were no hospitals in the area that could accommodate his size he was treated at the hotel where he was staying. He passed away July 15th 1940 in Manistee as a result of blood poisoning from an untreated infection.

His funeral was attended by 30,000 plus people July 19th in Alton Illinois. He was buried under a vault of concrete because of his parent's fears that he would become the subject of medical research, or exhibited as a curiosity and his personal possessions were destroyed in an effort to keep them from collectors and being displayed.

If you have any stories or photographs that you would like to share with our readers please feel free to contact me at 757-3240 or davep@blackcreekpress.com

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