Taylor (“There’s a sucker born every minute”) Barnum
knew talent when he saw it.
The Connecticut-born showman employed talent scouts to scour the
country looking for new acts for his wildly successful franchise,
the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.
In 1877, though some sources say it was in 1880, one of the circus
magnate’s men heard about the Shields boys in Hunt
County – Guss, Frank, Shadrack and Jack.
The Shields – born in 1852, 1853, 1855 and 1859 respectively --
worked on their family farm, but Barnum’s agent did not need common
laborers. He sought talent, a term for which the sideshow world
had a very broad definition. “Talent” included being too short,
too tall, having multiple limbs or none at all as well as assorted
other traits that made someone unusual or shocking in appearance.
The Shields boys had talent in that stacked head-to-toes they would
extend almost 32 feet, taller than a three-story building. Each
of the boys stood just a bit shy of eight feet.
Barnum offered the boys $100 a week, a heady sum in those days.
Billed as the Texas Giants, the Shields brothers traveled
with the circus across the U.S. and Europe, donning martial-looking
uniforms and high police-style helmets that made them look even
taller. A descendant later revealed that his towering forebears
also wore elevated shoes. Barnum, being Barnum, fudged on their
Still, the Shields boys existed at a higher elevation than most.
And, like liking like, Shadrack “Shade” Shields married up – his
bride stood seven-foot-ten. Betrothed on Christmas Day, 1890, they
went out on their own for a time as the Tallest Married Couple
Guss is listed as the author (who knows if he actually wrote it)
of a rare, eight-page pamphlet published in Chicago in 1884, “A
Biographical Sketch of the Four Texas Giants, the Shields Brothers.”
In addition to the booklet, the brothers peddled photos of themselves.
Shadrack and his red-haired wife stayed on the road until around
the turn of the 20th century, but the other brothers had called
it quits after about a decade. Jack died in 1896. Guss and Shade
later ran a saloon in Greenville,
though Shade would go back out, teaming up with a three-foot tall
circus veteran named Major Ray for an act on Mississippi
river boats. Frank’s grandson, Marcus Ross Freiberger, grew
to six-ten and went on to win a gold medal in the 1952 Olympics
The Shields boys stood at the height of their career in 1885 when
James Grover Tarver was born in Franklin.
He grew up to a strapping eight-foot-two and hit the circuit in
1909. He worked for four different circuses, billed either as the
Texas Giant or Tallest Man in the World.
“I was a cowboy
until I got bigger than the pony,” he told crowds.
Tarver stayed in show business until 1933, when Jack Earle
The last of the really tall Texans came into the world as Jacob
Erlich in 1906 in Denver, but his family moved to El
Paso, where he grew up. Since he weighed less than four pounds
at birth, his parents may have worried whether he’d grow to full
size. They needn’t have fretted. He made it to eight-foot-six, big
enough to make a professional basketball player look like a little
As a teenager, Erlich went to Hollywood hoping for a movie career
and found it. As Jack Earle, the name he went by from then
on out, he ended up in 48 silent movies, including a role as the
giant in the film version of two classics, Hansel and Gretel and
Jack and the Beanstalk.
Back in El
Paso, Earle took in a performance of the Ringling Brothers Circus
when it came to town. When someone with the show noticed that Earle
stood taller than Tarver, he got hired as the World’s Tallest
Man. Looking even taller by wearing boots and a cowboy hat,
the Texas Giant spent 14 years with the circus. (Tarver retired
to the life of a farmer in Arkansas, where he lived until his death
Earle left the circus world in 1940, sold wine in San Francisco
and dabbled in poetry and the arts. He retired to El
Paso and was having a high-ceilinged, king-sized house built
when he died in a hospital there of kidney disease on July 19, 1952.
The Shields boys, Tarver and Erlich-Earle weren’t the only non-vertically-challenged
Texans to make it big, so to speak, but they got the most ink over
the years. True tall tales from Texas.
© Mike Cox
May 28, 2009 column
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