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Telling Tall Tales by Nigel Roth

In 1918, as the Eastern United States was losing its last ever native Carolina parrot, which had been taken from its natural environment and doomed to live out it’s last peckings in a wholly-unnatural cage at Cincinnati Zoo, Robert Pershing Wadlow was born.

You might know him, of course as the tallest person who ever lived.

An Illinoian from Alton, near St Louis, Wadlow grew to the astonishing height of 2.72 meters, and a grand weight of one-hundred-and-ninety-nine kilos.

He died aged twenty-two, but not before he was measured accurately and photographed widely, and stared at and watched like a Carolina parrot in an Ohio prison.

The irony is, of course, that we don’t actually know if he was the tallest person ever.

We do know, though, that the Gundam Robot, standing at eighteen meters tall, is the tallest robot in the world, and probably ever. Taking its style cues from the 1970s anime series, Mobile Suit Gundam, the robot walked just last month to it’s new home in the port of Yokohama, Japan, where it'll reside happily, and be admired.

But it’s not yet a complete human, and we have at least four other men with a claim to that tallest title, whose height was not officially recorded.

There’s the American John Aasen, for example, whose Norwegian ancestors were particularly tall, his mother said to have been 2.20 meters herself. Illegitimate at birth, and an orphan by twelve, he became a silent movie actor and sideshow performer, thanks to his claimed height of 2.74 meters.

We may look to John Middleton, whose height was said to have been 2.82 meters. Middleton, known as the Childe of Hale, was born in 1578, near Liverpool, in England, and was an oddity among both his fellow Elizabethan townsfolk, and King James I, at whose court he won, and was subsequently relieved of by his disloyal companions, a vast sum of eight-thousand dollars in today's money, for wrestling at the King’s pleasure.

If we don’t believe the height of those two man-mountains, maybe the Russian Feodor Andreevich Machnow could provide a rival to Wadlow. He was slightly taller than Middleton, so the story goes, achieving 2.83 meters at his death in 1912, from suspected pneumonia or possibly poisoning, after an exhausting schedule of touring the world as a one-man show.

And if Machnow doesn’t convince you, what of the tallest of them all, the colossal Giant of Castelnau, whose bone fragments on excavation in the late nineteenth century, showed him (or her) to have been around 3.50 meters tall. Discovered by the French anthropologist Count Georges Vacher de Lapouge, the bones came from a bronze age burial mound, and seemed to date from the Neolithic. Lapouge has the unenviable title of founder of ‘anthroposociology’, a discipline that aimed to confirm the superiority of certain ‘races’ over others, race in that sense being a misnomer in itself, of course.

Whether or not any of these claims are real, we’ll probably never know, but we do need to adjust Wadlow’s title a little; he’s the tallest person we know of for sure.

And that’s not quite right either.

The American John F Carroll, the Ukranian Leonid Stadnyk, the Bangladeshi Jinna Ali, and the Indian Vikas Uppal, were all above 2.50 meters, but they refused to be measured accurately, so we really don’t know how tall they actually were.

Wadlow, then, is actually the tallest accurately-measured person we have evidence for.

And then there is one more caveat that makes Wadlow far less spectacular as a giant.

In creating the Gundam humanoid, engineers spent six years designing and balancing the robot so that it could securely support itself, and so all its composite parts worked perfectly, allowing it to bend easily, move it’s limbs freely, and generally do what humans do without discomfort. Not easy when you weigh twenty-five tons.

And not easy when your growth is the result of several comorbidities. Wadlow’s own unusual development was due to hyperplasia, an unusual increase in organic tissue within his pituitary gland, which resulted in a much higher level of growth hormone than most of us will ever have. This, as is the case with most ‘tallest’ claimants, caused his incredible size, and his uncomfortable life, and early death.

So, in actual fact, Wadlow was the tallest pathologically-affected, accurately measured person, we know of.

Still tall of course, but not exactly what you might call a true giant.

For that achievement we need to explore the life of the tallest non-pathological, accurately measured person that ever lived, and his long-forgotten name is Angus MacAskill.

To find our true giant, we need to travel to a faraway island, Berneray in the Sound of Harris, in the Scottish Outer Hebrides. Berneray, Norse for ‘Bjorn’s island’, was home to Scandinavian seafarers who left ancient sacred sites and Viking strongholds to show they'd been there, and Bronze Age people who left circles and earthworks as testament to their existence.

And, it was where, on a magical day in 1825, Angus MacAskill was born.

MacAskill’s father was an average 1.75 meters tall, and his mother was shorter, and he was a very ordinary size at birth, as were his twelve siblings. After some time in Berneray on North Uist, the family moved north-east to Stornoway, capital of Lewis and Harris, and the chief town in the Western Isles, before taking advantage of the 1828 Act to Regulate the Carrying of Passengers in Merchant Vessels, which guaranteed safe passage and adequate sustenance on the voyage to Canada,

And off they went, to make their way in the New World, with six-year-old MacAskill, leaving old Scotland for new Scotland, and another island, Cape Breton, in Nova Scotia.

The Canadian air did MacAskill good, and he grew fast and steady, and, most importantly, in proportion, as strong as he was tall and broad.

One evening, as the fishermen unloaded catches of brown trout and striped bass, salmon, cod, and flounder, and blueback and gaspereau herring, MacAskill and his friends hitched a ride on a small fishing boat, to take them across the harbor, from St Anns, on the southwestern shore of St Anns Bay, where he and his family had put down roots, to North Sydney, on the north side.

The dance was lively, and full of the banter of young men and women looking for some excitement and a bit of flirtation. Between dances, and laughter, teasing and goading, the evening hopped along. At some point, it became a little too lively, and a disagreement arose between MacAskill, who’s footwork was lighter than his frame would have suggested, and another dancer, and he punched him, just once, square in the jaw. So hard, in fact, that the man lay unconscious for such a long time that MacAskill was found kneeling and praying that he hadn’t killed him.

By the age of twenty, MacAskill was 2.24 meters high, and was on his way to a solid, but absolutely proportionate, one-hundred-and-ninety-three kilograms, with shoulders that were one-hundred-and-ten centimeters wide. Those giant characteristics allowed him to lift a twenty-eight-hundred pound ship’s anchor to chest height, carry one-hundred-and-sixty pound barrels at will, and empty his boat of bilge water by tipping the entire craft upside down, while his fellow fishermen bailed theirs out one bucket at a time.

By the time he’d finished growing, MacAskill had palms twenty centimeters wide and thirty long, he had wrists that were thirty-four centimeters around and ankles that were forty-six centimeters in circumference. And, his boots were almost half-a-meter in length.

And he stood, not with a stick or a cane, and not with any physical challenges at all, 2.36 meters, straight and proud, and with the largest chest of any non-obese man, a massive two-hundred centimeters.

His colossal size did not escape the notice of that most vile of exploiters, Phineas Taylor Barnum, who invited the giant to join his freak show, which MacAskill did in 1849, to show off his size and strength. Queen Alexandrina Victoria also asked ‘Gille Mòr’, the Big Boy, to perform for her, which he also did, and for which she declared him "the tallest, stoutest and strongest man to ever enter the palace", and presented him with trinkets of her eternal gratitude.

When the gently-spoken giant had tired of being gawked at, he returned home, bought a mill and a general store, and lived the life of an ordinary man, until his death in August of 1863, from brain fever, after a trip to Halifax to purchase winter stock for the store.

His passing was reported only locally, and he was buried quietly alongside his parents, whose graves he dwarfed in comparison. His house, with it’s massive door stood, for many years, until it fell into a state of disrepair, and was lost to history.

But he’s remembered here, as a true giant of the past, and joins Gundam man, a true giant of the future.

Picture Wendy Wei

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