Alton’s Gentle Giant turns 100

Robert Pershing Wadlow was 8’ 11.1” by the time he died at the young age of 22 in 1940.  Today he still holds the Guinness World Record for the tallest man to ever live!

Robert was born in Alton, Illinois on February 22, 1918 and I visited the River City along with my friends Annie Jansen and Beth and Jane Elliott to celebrate and take in the Wadlow sites.

This life size statue is of Robert Wadlow, the “Gentle Giant”

Robert had a pituitary gland disorder causing him to grow at an amazing rate. By the time he was eight; he was 6’5” and weighed 195, by 13, he was the largest Boy Scout in the world and by 18; he became the tallest person in the world.  Robert was the oldest of five children; he had two younger sisters and three brothers. Robert graduated from Alton High School in 1936. Robert’s parents and siblings did not suffer from the growth hormone issue that Robert suffered from. While this is treatable today, at that time, nothing could be done, so the family made the best of it.
For a semester, after graduation, Robert attended what was then Shurtleff College to study pre-law. He had to leave the school because moving from place to place was to difficult.

Beth, Annie and Jane pose with the life size cutout of Robert Wadlow that is in the entry of the Franklin Masonic Lodge
The photo of this ad was taken at the Alton History and Art Museum.

In 1937 Robert signed a contract with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circles and in July of 1938, Robert and his father Harold began a tour as a representative for International Shoe Company, making personal appearances at shoe stores throughout the country. He visited 800 towns in 41 states, logging nearly 300,000 miles in his lifetime.  At a festival in Manistee, Michigan, in July of 1940, Robert’s formed blisters from a brace rubbing against the skin. The blisters became infected and Robert passed away on July 15, 1940. He was 8’ 11.1” and weighed 439 pounds.

It was interesting that Jane’s mom attended his funeral. Jane said, “She waited hours in line for the funeral.”

Deemed the “Gentle Giant” because of his kind demeanor, there are several places to learn about Robert and celebrate his birthday.  Our first stop was he Alton Visitor’s center where there is a cutout of Robert and his amazing height can be observed by standing next to it. Annie and I signed his birthday card.

Next, we joined Beth and Jane at the Franklin Masonic Lodge where Bill Perkins, the Master of the Lodge took us to see our first Robert Wadlow find, a room dedicated to Robert’s memory. “He was 22 when he passed away, he joined the Mason’s at 21,” Bill said. “We have the chair from his home.”

At the Lodge they marked his height and belt buckle height which is just about how tall I am!  At the Temple there are several wonderful pictures and some of my favorite photos were from Robert’s 21st birthday where over 400 people attended. “His 21st birthday party was here at the temple,” Bill shared.

While not always open, visitors are welcome the Franklin Masonic Temple is usually open on Saturdays. Next we headed across the street from the Alton Museum of History & Art Museum where we had fun posing with the beautiful bronze life-size statue of Robert sculpted by Ned Giberson.  There is also a bronze statue of his chair, a replica of the one we saw at the Lodge. The house where he was born is also on display in the park.

On to the Alton Museum of History & Art. Brian Combs took us on a wonderful tour and shared information about Elijah Lovejoy and other historic connections to the museum. “This is the 2nd oldest college building in Illinois,” he shared about the museum site.

This was one of the main places where the 100 year celebration took place.  We enjoyed touring and seeing the display which included a replica of his Mason ring, a shoe ad and much more!  Log onto for more information about this jewel of a museum!

A more detailed account of our visit will be in the August issue of Senior News & Times.  Head to Alton and learn about Robert Wadlow for yourself.  Before hitting the road in Alton, begin your trip at the Visitor’s Center, to get your bearings and all the great information they have to offer!