Somebody Shut Off His Pituitary! Visit the Tallest Man in the World, Robert Wadlow. Alton, Illinois.CTA transit ad
Given the nature of the copy and the accompanying vintage sideshow cartoon, this advertisement might have dated from the turn of the twentieth century. But this ad, found on CTA bus shelters, includes the distinctly modern www.enjoyillinois.com and the tagline, “Illinois. Mile after magnificent mile.”
Intrigued by the apparent tastelessness of this Illinois Bureau of Tourism ad, I looked up Robert Wadlow online. According to Roadside America and other sites, Robert Pershing Wadlow was born in Alton, Illinois in 1918 and, due to a tumor in his pituitary gland, grew to a height of 8’11.1″ (a record that still stands). Although he toured with the Ringling Brothers Circus in 1936 and as a spokesman for the International Shoe Company, he never became the sideshow freak that so many victims of nature and disease did. He even attended college with the intention of studying law. The Alton Museum site says:
Robert Wadlow holds a special place in Alton’s history. He is remembered as a quiet young man who overcame a unique handicap, and who was an inspiration to all of those that knew him.Alton Museum
Not surprisingly, Wadlow died young, in 1940 at age 22. The braces need to support his legs and weight gave him a blister that became infected.
Back to the Illinois Bureau of Tourism ad: It’s trying to entice you to visit Alton, where Wadlow was born and lived and died, and where a life-size bronze statue was erected to commemorate the man and his stature. He may be long gone, but kids can still compare their size (and shoe size) to that of the unfortunate giant.
Now, it’s true that Illinois doesn’t offer much in the way of great attractions, natural or otherwise. Of course, there are gems like Volo Bog (north), Starved Rock and numerous state parks, and the Shawnee National Forest and Shawnee Hills Wine Trail (south), along with the usual lures of a major urban center like Chicago (museums, theatre, shopping, dining, architecture, etc.). Springfield boasts the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum because, after all, Illinois is the “Land of Lincoln” — at least that’s what’s on all the license plates.
Unless you’re interested in studying suburban sprawl (north), checking out cornfields (central), or fishing among the cypress (south), there’s not much unusual or grand to bring tourists to Illinois. There’s no Grand Canyon, no Yosemite, no redwoods, no petrified forest, no Niagara Falls, no Old Faithful, no herds of elk or caribou, no — well, you name it. Ask Chicagoans where they go for a weekend of recreation, and they’re likely to tell you Door County in Wisconsin, Indiana Dunes, or Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Anywhere but Illinois.
Apparently, the Illinois Bureau of Tourism decided to focus on what Illinois does have — small attractions and roadside oddities. According to Roadside America, Illinois has about 66 roadside attractions, ranging from cars on a spike (Berwyn) to the hometown of Superman (Metropolis). (For some reason, they even include Medieval Times in Schaumburg, which is part of a national chain, and a few other mainstream goodies.)
These include, of course, Robert Wadlow, dead since 1940. I don’t have any problems with the promotion of his bronze statue or the chair that was made for him. The Illinois Bureau of Tourism has to work with what it has. But where did the sideshow-style poster originate? Is it truly vintage, or is it a modern rendition of a vintage look? If it is the former, the real McCoy, the Bureau should have considered a few changes that would have made it less of a repulsive reminder of a time that is, thankfully, past — for example, changing the wording, “Somebody Shut Off His Pituitary!” And giving Robert Wadlow a head and a face. As it is, he’s represented as a cartoon torso with long legs and huge hands and feet. In the best (worst?) sideshow tradition, the Bureau has turned a man with an incurable medical condition into an object to be gawked at.
There’s also a bit of false advertising here. I’d never heard of Robert Wadlow, so when I saw this poster I thought that it was still possible to “visit” Wadlow — not to look at a statue of him or sit in his chair.
The other Bureau ads are equally simple — large graphics, minimal copy. It’s not just the Bureau, either; most bus shelter advertisers go straight for the visual, probably to catch the weary eye of hurrying pedestrians who have no intention of riding the CTA. To me this seems a rather odd approach, given the medium; where else but a CTA bus stop do people have 5–20 minutes to read? The problem is that once you read about Robert Wadlow on, say, www.enjoyillinois.com, it’s unlikely you’re going to spend hours driving to Alton to stand next to a statue and sit in a chair for five minutes for a photo op. Door County or Alton? The Indiana Dunes or Alton? The Upper Peninsula or Alton? You decide.
In the meantime, thanks to the Illinois Bureau of Tourism, the headless, faceless Robert Pershing Wadlow can be exploited as tastelessly in death, in the 21st century, as he may have been in life, in the 20th, 70 years ago.
Enjoy Illinois, the Land of Freaks, er, Lincoln.