Clifford Thompson: Marquette’s Giant of the Law

Many graduates of Marquette University Law School have loomed large in the history of Wisconsin and American law, but none have cast a longer shadow than Clifford Thompson of the Class of 1944. Reportedly 8’7” inches tall, Thompson has the distinction of being both the tallest lawyer in American history and the tallest man ever to appear in an American movie.

Clifford Marshall Thompson was born in Ramsey County, North Dakota, on October 18, 1904. Neither of his parents were particularly tall—his father Julius Gustavus Thompson was between 5’9” and 5’10” tall and his mother, Carrie Johnson Thompson, was about an inch shorter—and while he weighed a healthy 12 pounds at birth, there was no reason to think that he would grow to be one of the largest men in the world. He began school in Silva, North Dakota, but his family moved to a farm in Waupaca County, Wisconsin, located between Iola and Scandinavia, when he was seven years old. He had two younger sisters, both of whom were of average size. That Thompson was much taller and much larger than most people was apparent at an early age, although he did not reach his full height until he was 27 years old.

Although he would grow to an almost unbelievable height, Thompson appears to have had a reasonably normal childhood. He attended primary school in Iola and secondary school at Scandinavia Academy before enrolling in a two-year teacher preparation program at the state teachers college in Stevens Point. While at Stevens Point, he tried out for, but apparently was not selected to be a member of the school’s basketball team because of a variety of injuries and health problems. He finished the program in 1926 with the intention of being a high school math and science teacher, but after more than a year of applying for positions, he was not able to obtain a teaching job. In fact, few of his applications even received responses. Presumably, his lack of success was related to his height, and Thompson later speculated that the school superintendents who rejected his application were concerned that he would frighten the children.

In frustration, he applied for a job with the Royal American Shows circus which had come to Stevens Point for a show. The circus operators obviously knew a good attraction when they saw one, and hired him on the spot. Clifford Thompson, the eight-foot tall unemployed school teacher, was soon transformed into one of America’s best known circus giants. At $125 per week, he was earning more from the circus than he could have possibly earned as a school teacher in northern Wisconsin. He appears to have moved from employer to employer during the early part of his “circus” career, and in 1929, the Stevens Point newspaper reported that he was now with the Rubin and Cherry Carnival Company and was scheduled to perform at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. Early in his career, he regularly returned to his home in Scandinavia, and on at least one occasion in 1929, served as a basketball referee in Appleton.

In 1931, shortly after beginning his circus career, Thompson shifted his base of operations to the Al G. Barnes Circus, a once independent organization that had been taken over in 1929 by the world famous Ringling Bros., Barnum and Bailey Circus. At various times he was billed as “The Scandinavian Giant,” “The Wisconsin Paul Bunyan,” “The Norwegian Viking Giant,” “Count Olaf” from Norway, and “the tallest man who walks the face of the earth.” He was also sometimes billed simply as “Cliff Thompson,” which implied that he was as large as the side of a mountain.

The photo below shows him around the time that he received his teacher’s certificate from the state teachers college in Stevens Point.

 

 

Although he was clearly a major attraction, throughout his years in the circus, he attempted to live as normal a life as possible. In 1930, he married the 5’2” Harriet Bryant of Dallas, Texas, in a ceremony conducted in Ft. Meyers, Florida, where the Barnes Circus was then performing. The marriage ceremony attracted widespread attention, and it was filmed by the Fox Metrotone News, and as part of a newsreel was shown across the United States in movie theaters. On August 19, 1931, he and his new wife made a triumphant return to Stevens Point. Throughout his circus career, Thompson was frequently identified with Wisconsin--a 1937 Time magazine story about him noted that he was a Wisconsinite from Stevens Point.

Below is a post card, presumably from his early days in the circus; a circus flyer promoting Thompson as Count Olaf from Norway, and a photograph of Thompson with two circus dwarves.

 

 

 

However, the headquarters of the Barnes Circus were in Los Angeles where Clifford and his wife resided when they were not on the road. Thompson’s growing notoriety and the proximity to Hollywood made it possible for him to have an off-season career in films. He was the subject of a newsreel, “A Day in the Life of a Giant,” and although he was not listed in the credits, apparently appeared in the 1931 film “Movie Town” with Marjorie Beebe, Mack Sennett, and Buster Crabbe. In March of 1931, his Hollywood presence was large enough for the Chicago Tribune to identify him as the “tallest man in movies.”

In 1932, he appeared, in a credited role, in the short film, “Seal Skins” with actress Zasu Pitts and a monkey named Jocko. In 1934, he appeared in two full-length feature films, Ben Hecht’s “Twentieth Century,” starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard and “Murder in the Private Car,” with Charles Ruggles and Una Merkel. Although he played a character named “Mr. Allen” in the latter film, all of his roles were essentially humorous walk on appearances in which the other characters (and the audience) are shocked by his great height. While he was not officially credited as a member of the cast, he also reportedly appeared in the early Johnny Weissmuller films, “Tarzan the Ape Man” (1932) and “Tarzan and His Mate” (1934). In 1935, the Stevens Point, Wisconsin newspaper reported that he had appeared in six films, and modern film historians recognize him as the tallest man ever to appear in a Hollywood film. The following undated newspaper article is from his days in Hollywood.

 

 

They Grow Them Large from Where He Comes From

 

This little chap is Cliff Thompson, 8 feet 9 inches tall. his companion's are Margaret (Blonde) and Rose Nearing, pictured aboard a liner in Los Angeles.

Thompson’s first marriage ended in divorce in the mid-1930’s. Thompson believed that his marriage was a casualty of his career, although his wife insisted that she was tired of having to prepare such large meals. Although Thompson insisted that he ate only slightly more than an average person, one of his meals was described as consisting of three pounds of steak, several potatoes, three dishes of vegetables, a quart of milk and an entire apple pie.

In 1935, he decided to forego another winter in Los Angeles, and instead after the end of the circus season in November he returned to Scandinavia, Wisconsin where he lived with his parents. After this he spent most of his winters back home, and he became a regular feature of winter-time public events in the Waupaca area. He also affiliated with a number of social organizations including the Waupaca Lions Club and the Wisconsin Rapids BFO Elks. In December of 1935, he played the world’s tallest Santa Claus at the Waupaca community Christmas program and he participated in a number of event (including skiing himself) at the Iola Ski Hill.

In 1936, Thompson left the Ringling Brothers organization and signed with the Cole Brothers Circus which featured world famous animal trainer, Clyde Beatty. It was while working for Cole Brothers that Thompson met a 5’6” tall dancer dancer named Mary Mars. Mars was from Milwaukee, and had left her career as a nightclub performer there and in Chicago to join the Cole Brothers Circus in 1938. The two performers quickly fell in love. At this point, Thompson had been performing with circuses for 12 years, and he was increasingly tired of the travel from one city to another and of the gypsy life of the circus performer. Both he and Mars were attracted to the idea of settling down and living a more normal life.

The photo below is of Clifford with a collection of Cole Brothers performers known as the “Congress of Human Oddities.”



Seeking a more stable existence, Thompson quit the Cole Brothers Circus in 1938, a decision that was not well-received by his employers and led to the circus’ withholding money that Thompson believed he was owed. (This dispute would not be resolved for years.) He moved to Milwaukee where he sought to capitalize on his fame and size as a product spokesman. At different times he appeared on behalf of a Ford automobile dealership (emphasizing the roominess of Fords) and the Big Shoe Store in Stevens Point. However, his big break came when he was hired by representatives of the Wisconsin milk industry to stroll through the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds in September 1938, wearing a placard that said: “Drink Milk: Look what it did for me.” At the Fair, he met an executive of the Milwaukee-based Blatz Brewery who jokingly told Thompson that he should be touting beer, not milk.

Once the Fair concluded, Thompson went to the Blatz offices where he convinced the company to hire him as a travelling spokesman for their product. The security of his new position allowed Thompson to purchase a home in Milwaukee and to marry Mary Mars. The wedding took place on April 9, 1939, at the Trinity Lutheran Church in Rockford, Illinois. At the time of the wedding, Thompson was 34 years old, and Mars was 32. Thompson and his second wife are pictured below.

                              


After his marriage Thompson appeared to become more involved in the operation of his parents diary farm. In July of 1939, the ^ Capital Times of Madison ran a photo of the new Clean-Easy Milker that he had purchased for the family farm. In the story accompanying the photo, Thompson is referred to as the world’s “largest” dairy farmer. When not working on the farm, Thompson’s new position with Blatz required him to travel throughout the United States, and after their marriage Mars ordinarily travelled with him. While working for Blatz, the Thompsons travelled approximately 40,000 miles by car each year. Thompson drove a modified 1935 Ford Sedan, which basically lacked a front seat. All of his clothing except for his neck-ties were custom made.

When not on the road, the Thompsons appear to have spent most of their time in Waupaca County. Thompson frequently spoke to civic groups about his experiences in the entertainment industry, and the couple frequently went to the movies. Normally Thompson sat in a “love seat” designed for a couple and his wife sat as close to him as she could. To a remarkable extent, Thompson was able to live a fairly normal life in his post-circus years. As the Wisconsin State Journal put it while reporting on a Thompson visit to Madison in 1939, “He is normal in every way except for his size and the prodigious meals he stores away.”

Initially, Thompson enjoyed his position as a travelling salesman. In a profile published in the ^ Milwaukee Sentinel on December 1, 1941, he explained his preference for his current position in the following way, “The big difference is that as a circus giant, I was merely on display, whereas now I am doing a job the same as anybody else. Of course I think my show experience helps in my present work, as I have the knack of putting showmanship into my selling, which is chiefly the reason for my success as a salesman.”

Although Thompson apparently enjoyed his work promoting Blatz Beer, he again tired of his life on the road. Although he had a specially constructed automobile, Thompson found life as a traveling salesman particularly grueling when it came to finding a place to sleep. He normally rented a hotel room with two double beds, pushed them together, and then slept diagonally across them. At this point, he also weighed 460 pounds and he was finding it increasingly difficult to walk without a cane. At this point, he also decided that it was time to look for a new career. Although he apparently loved farm life, his physical condition ruled out full-time farming.

Going into the military was not a realistic option. Once the United States entered the Second World War in 1942, Thompson registered for the draft in Waupaca, but his age, 38, and physical size led to his receiving a 3-A draft classification which made it highly unlikely that he would be called into active duty. (Several of those who were present when he registered pointed out that he would make an excellent airplane spotter.)

At this point, he decided to go to law school, and in June of 1942, Thompson enrolled as a law student at Marquette University in Milwaukee. On the eve of his enrollment, he told a reporter from the Wide World news service that he wanted to “get into a profession where I can settle down into a home of my own.” He and his wife moved into a third floor apartment in Milwaukee, and she enrolled in a legal secretarial course so that she could serve as his secretary once he was admitted to the bar. (She also apparently served as the director of the consumer affairs section of the Milwaukee YWCA during his school years.)

Cliff was still enough of a celebrity in 1942 that ^ Billboard Magazine reported his enrollment at Marquette. The June 16, 1942 edition of the Racine Journal Times also reported that Marquette University basketball coach Bill Chandler attempted to recruit Thompson for the Marquette basketball team, but Cliff apparently had no interest in playing in spite of his earlier efforts in the sport. He did, however, continue to work for Blatz on a part-time basis while a law student.

Because of dwindling enrollments caused by U.S. entry into the Second World War, Marquette had collapsed its three-year law course into a year round two-year program. In a revision of the law school curriculum that would last until the late 1940’s, the law school adopted a three-semester calendar with the full-length summer semester beginning shortly after Commencement and extending until late September.

Unfortunately, very few records were kept by the law school during the war, and little is known about Clifford’s time as a law student. However, it is known that Dean Francis Sweitlik had several classrooms altered to accommodate Thompson’s size. He was also not a member of the law review even though that publication included a significant percentage of the war-time student body on its staff. His height continued to attract attention, even beyond the halls of the Marquette Law School. When he joined the Delta Theta Pi legal fraternity in April 1943, newspapers across the United States carried a photograph of a Marquette professor standing on tiptoes trying desperately to reach Thompson’s lapel so that he could attach the fraternity pin.

Thompson graduated on schedule in June, 1944, and he shared the limelight at the June 1944 Marquette graduation with Sister Mary de Lourdes Walsh, the first nun to graduate from the Marquette Dental School. Shortly before his graduation he retained a lawyer to file suit against his former employer, the Cole Brothers Circus, for $260 in unpaid wages. Thompson and three of his classmates were admitted to the Wisconsin bar pursuant to the Wisconsin diploma privilege on July 1, 1944.

The photo of the swearing in ceremony posted below was published in the July 3, 1944 ^ Wisconsin State Journal. Pictured with Thompson are, left to right, Marquette Law School Dean Francis Swietlik, his classmates Robert Schoen, Jane O'Meila, and the 5’1” James D’Amato (his best friend), and Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Elmer Barlow. In its story regarding the July 1 ceremony, the State Journal described him as the Wisconsin’s bar’s “tallest member” and quoted him as saying, “The judge will see me and he will hear me in any case I try, but what other notice he will take of me, I don’t know.”



After graduation and his admission to the Wisconsin bar, Thompson returned to Waupaca County where he opened a law office in Iola in July. His early efforts at practice were sidetracked by some medical issues, including abdominal problems that left him hospitalized in the Mayo Clinic in December of 1945.

He practiced in the Waupaca area until 1948, when he decided to investigate the idea of returning to Los Angeles. In April of that year, he drove to California to investigate the possibility of relocating there. In route, his car broke down in Ames, Iowa. Repairs required him to stay in Ames for several days, and the April 27, 1948 edition of the Ames Daily Tribune contained a report of his unplanned visit along with several photos of Thompson and various denizens of the city. At the time of the visit to Ames, when Thompson was 44 years old, he reportedly weighed 360 pounds (which if the numbers are accurate was about 100 pounds less than his normally listed weight), wore a size #16 ½ shoe, a 19 ½ shirt, and had a 48-inch trouser length.

 
    

    

    

The Thompsons did decide to relocate to California, and on June 3, 1948, the ^ Los Angeles Times reported his return to the City of Angels. According to the paper, which identified him as the world’s tallest man, Thompson now described Los Angeles as “the most beautiful [town] in the world.” It also reported that he planned to take the California bar examination in October.

Thompson’s departure from Wisconsin appeared to catch many in the Badger state by surprise and many of the state’s newspapers had stories concerning his departure, but none offered an explanation for the decision to return to Southern California. The Wisconsin State Journal’s headline, “Former Iola Giant Moves to California,” was typical of the reporting, although the Madison paper also noted that Thompson was not likely to need a step-ladder when he hung out his shingle in Los Angeles. “Human Skyscraper Heads Westward,” was how the Racine Journal Times put it. Thompson did not appear to have left in anger, and he returned for the Christmas 1948 holidays, which featured an appearance at a ski-jumping competition in Wisconsin Rapids shortly before Christmas.

Thompson may also have had some thoughts about reviving his Hollywood career. In July, several newspapers ran a photo of Thompson with actress Virginia Mayo, but apparently no film roles were forthcoming. In fact, Thompson’s return to Los Angeles proved to be relatively brief. It appears that he did not pass the California bar examination in October and after that decided to look elsewhere for a place to live.

At the beginning of August, 1949, the couple moved to Portland, Oregon. Shortly after his arrival, he told the United Press, “I am here to live. I like the climate, the people, and the greenery.” Thompson did pass the Oregon bar examination, and he was admitted to the Oregon bar in April, 1950. For the next five years, Clifford practiced law out of an office in his new home. His fame followed him to Oregon and he was, for example, featured in the 1950 Oregon Trail Pageant parade.

He was also rediscovered by Hollywood, and in the early 1950’s, he was the subject of a short film feature entitled, “The Paul Bunyan of the Legal Profession.” In the newsreel, which focused on the difficulties he had performing the everyday tasks of life, Thompson is seen crossing the street in Portland, parking his specially modified giant car, entering his apartment and kissing his wife, and lying on two beds at once. Meanwhile a normal-sized parking attendant is shown having trouble parking the enormous car.

For a giant, Thompson lived a relatively long and reasonably full life. However, he developed a variety of medical problems in the early 1950’s, which plagued him during his years in Portland. He died on October 15, 1955, four days short of his 51st birthday. His death was attributed to a combination of gallstones and liver disease (most likely, liver cancer). According to his Associated Press obituary, he weighed 460 pounds at the time of his death, but the article indicated that the causes of his death had not been directly related to his height or weight.

More than a half century after his death, Thompson’s actual height is a matter of some controversy. Although he was billed as 8’6” and 8’7” during his circus career, and identified as 8’9” in at least one newspaper article, it is of course possible that his actual height may have been exaggerated. (Such practices are common among “giants” and circuses specialize in illusion.) In a 1937 article in Time magazine, Dr. Charles Humberd disputed Thompson’s claim to being 8’7,” suggesting that he made himself appear taller by wearing high healed shoes and a tall hat.

Whatever his actual height, Thompson was clearly very tall. Estimates of his actual height from those who have studied the issue have ranged from the previously mentioned 8’7” down to as low as 7’2”. Thompson was clearly shorter than his contemporary Robert Pershing Wadlow (1922-1940). Wadlow, a resident of Alton, Illinois, was widely accepted as the tallest man in the United States in the 1930’s, and his height was measured regularly by medical and scientific researchers throughout his short life. Wadlow suffered from hypertrophy of the pituitary gland which caused him to grow continuously throughout his life and at the time of his death in 1940, he was 8’11” tall. In the late 1930’s, Thompson and Wadlow once appeared together on stage, and Thompson was able to stand underneath the younger Wadlow’s outstretched arm, prompting Wadlow to comment, “When you grow up you will be an awfully big boy." After Wadlow’s death, Thompson was regularly referred to as the “tallest man in the United States.” Moreover, there are researchers who accept that Thompson was taller than eight feet. Recently researcher Craig Albert has used the techniques of photo-analysis to conclude that Thompson’s height was between 8’3” and 8’6.”

Thompson does not appear to have been particularly sensitive about his great height and frequently joked about the inconveniences of being over eight feet tall. He claimed that he dreaded the question, “How’s the weather up there?” and he from time to time he expressed his concern that he might someday be “scalped,” as he put it, by a ceiling fan. He was, however, clearly uncomfortable with the suggestion that he was a freak of nature or that his giant size was the product of a glandular condition. He rejected such interpretations and instead insisted that great size ran in his family (the ordinary stature of his parents notwithstanding). Reminiscent of his circus days as Count Olaf, he told an Iowa newspaper in 1944, "I am a descendant of the Norwegian Vikings among whom there were many tall men."

In addition to having been America’s tallest lawyer, tallest actor, and tallest dairy farmer, Thompson may hold other titles as well. The town museum in Rugby, North Dakota (near the site of his birth) contains a “World’s Tallest Salesman” exhibit featuring an 8’7” mannequin wearing one of Clifford Thompson’s old suits. Apparently the suit fits the mannequin quite easily.

The Marquette University Law School marked it centennial in 2007 and 2008, and part of the celebration included the display of a specially prepared, 8’ tall cut out of Thompson’s law school graduation photo in the University Library and at different places throughout the law school which was still housed in the same building in which Thompson attended classes from 1942 to 1944. With luck, his photograph will also be displayed in Eckstein Hall, the new Marquette law building that is scheduled to open in July 2010.

Special thanks to Jane Casper, Jim Ghiardi, and to Michael Jan, archivist at the University of Wisconsin--Stevens Point.

 

Article by J. Gordon Hylton
 


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