The World's Biggest Man,

T. A. Valenzuela was from Tempe

The best known Tempe resident in the 1920,s was not a politician, an athlete or a criminal. He was Teodulo A. Valenzuela, the world's largest man. He was a feature side show attraction of "The Biggest Show in Earth," The Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus. However, Valenzuela did not join the circus to become rich and famous, he joined out of desperation.

Valenzuela was born in 1886, [1] the son of Jesus and Dolores Valenzuela. [2]  Although his father was normal sized, the other family members were large. His mother, Dolores, weighed 360 pounds. Two of his brothers weighed well over 300 pounds and his sister weighed 510 pounds at the time of her death.[3]   Teo was no exception. His increasing weight resulted in his being known as "Fatty."  By the age of 16, he weighed 450 pounds and the Arizona Republican requested a photograph for publication.[4]

Theo, as he was also known worked as a boot black at Wyatt's Barber Shop in Tempe for several years. However, in those days before air conditioning, his increasing weight caused him to suffer more and more from the heat. Just before the summer of 1905, he left the barber shop to take a job selling ice cream. [7]


He worked at a variety of jobs, usually with other family members.  He was a salesman with the J. A. Valenzuela Co., [8] he managed the Valenzuela Confectionary Story in Phoenix, [9] and even as a helper at an alfalfa mill. [10]

Theo married Liondies Estrada, and by 1920 they had two children. He then had a job managing the pool hall in Tempe at 4th and Dewey in Tempe, [11] which was his main occupation for a number of years. [12] His weight was over 600 pounds and he was attracting a good deal of attention where ever he went. While vacationing in Long Beach, California, he had to request police attention to get relief from the hordes of curious onlookers.

After several requests to go on exhibit, he gave in and appeared at the Arizona Cotton Carnival in Mesa and the Arizona State Fair. In 1921 he hired an agent and was appearing at the Pike at Long Beach. [13]

By 1923, Theo went on the road with the Snapp Brothers Shows. [14] This was a minor league circus that toured medium sized towns. It featured high divers, wrestlers, dancing girls, motorcycle acts and a large side show. Theo appeared in the "Congress of Fat People" where he was known as "Happy Val."   Admission was ten cents. [15]

Theo's big break came in 1924 when he weighed 745 pounds and was considered to be the world's largest man. Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey, which  prided itself on having the biggest and best of everything, wired him to join their side show. Theo immediately left the west coast for New York. But, just getting to their office to sign the contract caused problems. A truck was used to transport him through New York City and then he had to ride the freight elevator to get to the upstairs office. [16]  He was now in the "big leagues." However, "Happy Val" was far too subtle a name for Barnum and Bailey. His new name, "Tom Ton," more aptly described his role in the sideshow's "Congress of Strange people."  [17]  He appeared with his female counterpart, "Ima Whale" and the world's smallest man, "Major Mite." [18]

Theo fit in well with the sideshow, being compared in circus publicity to the weight of the baby elephants in the circus. The contrast between him and Major Mite was played up, even to their wardrobes. Tom Ton's "tailor insists on multiplying the regular prices by three, so Tom goes for the most economical tunic of all. The Major, on the other hand is the beau Brummel of the circus. His wardrobe...contains the very latest things in up-to-date apparel." A publicity picture showed The Major measuring Tom for some new clothes. [19]


The only problem during Theo's time with the side show was the controversy over the inclusion of a gorilla named John Daniel 2nd.. The members of the Strange Folk Society, which represented the sideshow performers, protested the inclusion of an animal there. "He doesn't belong with us anyway.


said Princess Wee Wee, the world's smallest woman, "He belongs in the zoo." Tom Ton remarked that he had been slighted since the gorilla appeared, adding "that Cliquot, the African Bushman, who looks more like a gorilla than John Daniel had also been slighted."[20]

Theo continued to gain weight, and the rigors of constantly being on the road with the circus became so difficult that he could no longer continue.  He took a job appearing at Coney Island. Although he hated the East and he hated leaving his wife and three children in Los Angeles, this was the only way he could support them. Just living became difficult.

For several years he struggled to find a place to sit down.  No chair would hold him.  He could not even sit at a table and dine, for his chubby arms would not reach to the table.  He could not take a regular bath. Beds broke beneath him, ... he was the victim of many falls.  Once down it was extremely difficult for him to rise. He could walk only very slowly and move carefully  His muscles were so exerted that he was exhausted after a few steps.[21]

Valenzuela's weight increased to over 900 pounds, with a sudden increase of  100 pounds in a month. [22] His heart weakened and he experienced extreme difficulty in breathing. He know he was dying and he wanted to be at home for his final days. He managed to get space in a baggage car and he headed west to Los Angeles, growing ever weaker. [23]

The trainmen spread word that Tom Ton was aboard and at stops people came to peep in the car. He kept his show business demeanor, smiled his show business smile, waved and still played the roll of the old "Happy Val" and the jolly Tom Ton. [24]

At Los Angeles he was met by a two ton truck which took him to the general hospital.[25]  Two beds at the hospital were fastened together and braced to hold his weight. [26] There he died at the age of 39. A final indignity was when the County Coroner wanted to perform a post mortem autopsy, but the family strenuously objected. [27]

Resting in state for three days, over 40,000 persons filed past Theo's bier paying their last respects.  Requiem mass was said at St. Viviane's Church, attended by hundreds of circus and show business people. [28] The body was buried in Calvary cemetery. Twelve men were required to move the coffin to its final resting place where a block and tackle were used to lower the coffin into the grave. [29]

Theo was survived by his wife and three children.  He had managed to support his family as a side show attraction, but he had not gotten rich. After his death, his widow had to go to work as a school custodian to support herself and the children. [30]

The source of Valenzuela's fame was the cause of his early death. He had became Tempe's most famous native, although in his home town he was ridiculed with the nickname of "Fatty." Under an almost impossible burden, he provided for his family, projected an aura of good humor, and even in his dying days, maintained a professionalism that upheld the traditions of the show business he so hated. 


©Copyright  Tempe Historical Society All rights reserved.

1. U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, United States Census of Population, 1910, Arizona, Tempe, Precinct Number 16
2.  Correspondence with family of T. A. Valenzuela, July 2, 2006
3. Joel Benedict, Irene Benedict, Elizabeth Hampton James, Memories of Old Settlers of Tempe, Old Settlers Association, nd.
4. 1910 U. S. Census, ibid,
5. Arizona Republican, Phoenix, Arizona, March 16, 1902
7. Arizona Republican, May 19, 1905
8. Tempe City Directory 1915, Arizona Directory Co., Los Angeles California
9. Phoenix City Directory 1914, Arizona Directory Co., Los Angeles California
10. Phoenix City Directory 1915
11. U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, United States Census of Population, 1920, Arizona, Tempe, Precinct Number 16
10. Tempe City Directory 1923, Arizona Directory Co., Los Angeles California
11. Benedict, ibid
12. Josie Ortega Sanchez, Tempe Historical Museum Barrios Oral History Project, June 23, 1992, interviewed by Richard Nearing,
13. Benedict, ibid
14. Tempe City Directory 1923
15. Daily Northwestern, Oshkosh Wisconsin, July 3, 1921
16. Sheboygan Press Telegram, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, April 15, 1924.
17. Olean Evening Herald, Olean, New York, June 2, 1925.
18. "Sideshow Freaks Protest Gorilla Hurts Business," Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, April 17, 1924.
19. "Circus Presents Unusual Study in Contrast in Size," Gazette and Bulletin, Williamsport, Pennsylvania, May 15, 1925.
20.  "Sideshow Freaks Protest Gorilla Hurts Business," Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, April 17, 1924.
21. Edward R. Churchill, "Who'll Die Next" Ask Circus Freaks, Dunkirk Evening Observer, Dunkirk, New York, September 20, 1926.
22. "World Famous Man Passed in Heart Attack," San Mateo Times, San Mateo, California, May 28, 1926.
23. "World's Biggest Man Buried," Lake County Times, Hammond, Indiana, June, 1, 1926.
24. Churchill, ibid.
25. Lake County Times, ibid.
26. Benedict, ibid.
27. "Order Coffin for Giant Weighing About 950 Pounds," Mansfield Evening News, Mansfield, Ohio, June 1, 1926.
28 Lake County Times, ibid.
29 "World's Biggest Man To Be Buried Today," Coshocton Tribune, Coshocton, Ohio, June 1, 1926.
30. U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, United States Census of Population, 1930, California, Los Angeles.


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