Thursday, February 4, 2010
There was nothing small about Robert Earl Hughes. By the time he was six years old, he weighed an incredible 203 pounds—and, over the years, he just kept getting bigger.
Hughes was born in 1926, the son of Abe and Georgia Hughes, in the tiny farm hamlet of Fishhook, Ill., located about 20 miles northwest of Quincy. Weighing a hefty but not abnormal 11-pounds and 4-ounces at birth, Hughes was a fairly average-size baby until he contracted whooping cough when he was about five months old.
The ailment permanently threw his pituitary gland into hyper-drive and he began rapidly gaining weight. By age 10, he weighed 378 pounds, and three years later he was a whopping 546 pounds.
Friends and family note that Hughes’ weight gain was not because he over-ate—they describe him as having a healthy but not piggish appetite—but because of his out-of-control pituitary.
In spite of the challenges of being so enormous, by all accounts Hughes was a friendly, gentle soul, who tried to live as “normal” a life as possible, including doing chores around the family farm and walking to school each day.
At age 13, however, his schooling came to an end when, while walking to school, he lost his balance and fell into a ditch. It took several adults with ropes to pull him out of the hole.
Realizing he could no longer safely support his own weight, his parents reluctantly decided he shouldn’t return to school. Fortunately, Hughes was a motivated reader and continued his education by devouring any book he could lay his hands on.
Since there was no local library, neighbors often stopped by to loan him books.
At the age of 16, Hughes had grown to more than 600 pounds. Two years later, by which time he had gained another 100 pounds, he had to register for the draft (it was 1944). His parents informed the draft board there was no way they could get him to the registration in Mount Sterling, which was 12 miles away, so the board came to him.
The story about the unusual nature of his predicament titillated the local newspapers, which wrote about Hughes, calling him the largest man to ever register for the draft. The papers told their readers his vitals—he wore size 56 overalls, which his mother had to expand with another 17-inches of material, and how she handmade all his shirts.
The attention brought fame to Hughes, who began making public appearances at local festivals and selling photos of himself. While his mother objected to him being treated like a freak, Hughes apparently enjoyed the attention.
Following her death in 1947, he began regularly appearing in newsreels and making paid public appearances. He endorsed products; one tuxedo shop made a special mondo-sized tux for him, which he wore in print advertisements.
In 1954, he signed with a traveling carnival and spent the next several years touring the country. By late 1956, the five-foot, nine-inch Hughes had reached 1,041 pounds and officially became the heaviest man ever (the previous record holder, seven-footer Miles Darden, weighed 1,020 pounds when he died in 1857).
Two years later, while touring Indiana with the carnival, Hughes developed a skin rash as well as dark blue fingernails. A doctor diagnosed him with measles, which were making his kidney malfunction.
On July 8, 1958, Hughes slipped into a coma and died two days later of congestive heart failure.
At the time of his death, his weight was estimated to be 1,069 pounds. While his weight record has since been broken, Hughes still holds the Guinness World Book record for largest chest measurement ever recorded: 124 inches (10-feet, 4-inches).
It’s been erroneously reported that because of his enormous size Hughes was buried in a piano case. The truth is that he was laid to rest in a custom casket of heavy cypress reinforced with steel that was built by the Embalming Burial Case Co. of Burlington, Iowa. The casket measured 85-inches long, 52-inches wide and 34-inches deep. His body was placed in the casket using a forklift.
Hughes was buried in the small cemetery behind a tiny church in the town of Benville, located 10 miles north of Fishhook.
On his hefty tombstone is carved: “Robert Earl Hughes: June 1, 1926-July 10, 1958; World’s Heaviest Man’ Weight 1.041 pounds.”