Unlocking History

When the world’s tallest man visited Folsom Prison

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications

Thirty years before Johnny Cash’s performances at Folsom Prison, the “Alton Giant” visited the prison while touring the west coast. Robert Wadlow, who today still holds the record as the world’s tallest man, was 21 when he went to the prison on a sales call for a shoe manufacturer.

World's tallest man Robert Wadlow towers over two actresses and a 1930s vehicle in two side-by-side photographs taken moments apart.
Robert Wadlow took time in October 1938 to get autographs from Maureen O’Sullivan, left, and Ann Morris. After getting the autographs, the 20-year-old Wadlow posed for their publicity photo, at right.

Robert Wadlow tours the country

Already famous at 18 years old after his 1936 U.S. tour with the Ringling Brothers Circus, a shoe company seized the opportunity to hire Wadlow as a spokesperson.

In 1938, he embarked on a promotional tour for the International Shoe Company. Standing at well over 8 feet and still growing, his large frame required custom-made size 37 shoes. The company crafted his shoes free of charge.

He saw himself as working in sales and advertising, according to published reports. He refused to wear anything other than his regular clothing, just as he had while touring with the circus.

Much like any other young man, he was starstruck when he met two famous actresses in Hollywood.

Raised in Alton, Illinois, his celebrity status had not gone to his head. Before posing for their publicity photo, Wadlow asked Maureen O’Sullivan and Ann Morris for their autographs. O’Sullivan was known best at the time as Jane in the “Tarzan” films.

On a side note, O’Sullivan went on to play Warden Clinton Duffy’s wife Gladys in the 1954 film, “Duffy of San Quentin.”

Wadlow also made two appearances at the California State Fair.

A man towers over five other men. The group is standing in front of stairs.
Robert Wadlow visited Folsom State Prison in 1939. At left is Prison Physician Proctor W. Day.

World’s tallest man visits Folsom Prison in 1939

When he visited the Administration Building at Folsom State Prison in 1939, he paused for a photo with Dr. Proctor Day, the prison physician, and others near the front steps of the building. Wadlow was there to promote the shoe company to prison staff.

As he continued to grow, he began having trouble walking. He used a cane and wore braces on his legs.

In 1940, at 22 years old, Wadlow’s leg brace injured his skin, eventually leading to a fatal infection.

His parents had him buried under concrete, to help prevent grave robbers, and they destroyed most of his belongings to keep them from being displayed as sideshow exhibits. They donated his shoes to a museum.

At the time of his death, he measured 8 feet, 11.1 inches and weighed 490 pounds.

Celebrity visits highlight Rehabilitation

  • In 1911, famous stage actor H.B. Warner brought the play “Alias Jimmy Valentine” to the inmates at San Quentin. “I am a firm believer in the (rehabilitation) of man because I have an uncomfortable feeling that there is something of the criminal in all of us,” Warner told the San Francisco Call.
  • Actors Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks visited San Quentin as part of a war bonds drive in 1918. Magician Max Malini also entertained inmates in 1919. Read more.
  • A 1915 inmate-penned letter drew magician Harry Houdini to San Quentin for a special performance.