(The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.)
Interviewer: Can you tell me what you know about Robert Wadlo? I know he’s a real person but he’s also in some ways a local legend in Alton.
Informant: Umm. Tallest person…umm… that’s ever lived so far. As far as I know. Eiiuhh… eight foot… ten and a half or something like that. You could probably figure -you could probably google it and find out how tall he was. Umm. He uhh, uh. He went to Alton High school. Seen pictures of him with his classmates and they’re about hip height and he’s that much over the top of them. Uhm. Big man. Uhh, not very uhh, coordinated, but it’s because he was so big. He had to have help and stuff to get around. He was in a – a umm, a sideshow for a while as a – as a freak, for being so tall. Which was not a fun time. He uh… had to take – if he was going to go someplace in a car – they had a special – they took the front seat out, um uh on one side so he could uhh, sit in the back. And uhh, put his feet up into the front – of – of the car. Reach the pedals from there. He umm. He became a master mason. At Franklin Lodge. There’s a chair there that I can sit in and my feet aren’t even close to the ground. And they had his rings – I could put about three of my fingers inside of his ring. It was that big.
Informant: He umm. He had braces on his legs, in order he could stand. He was umm – the braces were the cause – what caused his uhh, his death. He got infections in his legs – and umm, the infection killed him. Umm. Buried in the Oakwood Cemetery. I can’t remember how old he was. 26 I think? Not too old. Everyone in Alton knows stories about him. Or some people whose parents knew him- grandparents knew him.
Background: My informant lived most of his younger life in Alton, Illinois. Robert Wadlow’s legacy is one large source of pride for the city of Alton. Though he is a real person, his status in Alton is quite like that of a legend.
Context: The informant is my Grandpa, and this piece was collected after I asked him if he knew any ‘folklore’ and gave him a day to think about it, on his request. He is certainly getting old, but he’s still rather sharp for his age.
Thoughts: Robert Wadlow is certainly real, and much of his life is factually documented. However, the thing that makes me feel he has a folkloric presence is the awe of having the tallest man to ever live born, raised, and honored in your hometown. Especially as a child, and so I’d imagine for other children, he felt quite surreal, and stories of his life – though factual – felt like tall tales (pun intended). That’s why I was interested in speaking to my Grandpa about him, since he is person in my life closest to knowing him, having gone to the same masonic temple and lived nearest to the same time. Bits of the story, like about how many fingers you can fit in his ring, are the parts that can be expounded upon and exaggerated out of pride for his legacy and which turn his life into something of a legend.