The Sad Stories Of The Ringling Brothers’ “Freak Show” Acts

Published May 19, 2016
Updated October 6, 2019

Jack Earle (“The World’s Tallest Man”)

Jack Earle

Left: The giant Jack Earle with fellow performer Major Mite, who stood 2’2″ tall. Right: Earle shows his size next to an average-sized man. Boston Public Library/Flickr

Standing six feet tall before the age of 10 — and growing to over seven feet tall by the age of 13 — Jack Earle was always a giant. There are conflicting reports as to his true height, but numbers range from 7’7″ to 8’6″.

Earle had been a Hollywood actor (he appeared in films like Hansel and Gretel and Jack and the Beanstalk) before a fall from scaffolding led to major injuries and temporary blindness, causing his retirement from the movie industry. Soon after his accident, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ freak show came through town with Jim Tarver as their current traveling giant.

Earle was considerably taller than Tarver, and Ringling Bros., seeing an opportunity, offered Earle a one-year contract with the circus. Earle had said he never wanted to be in a freak show, but he needed to make a living, so he signed the contract. He would spend the next 14 years on the road with the sideshow.

The gentle giant began his Ringling Bros. career alongside 2’2″ tall Major Mite (Clarence Chesterfield Howerton). On his first day, Earle was put at ease when circus midget Harry Doll explained that there were more “freaks” in the audience than there were on the sideshow platform.

After retiring, Earle — who suffered from acromegalic gigantism — went on to become a traveling salesman for the Roma Wine Company. He died of kidney failure in 1952 at the age of 46.

Erin Kelly
An All That’s Interesting writer since 2013, Erin Kelly focuses on historic places, natural wonders, environmental issues, and the world of science. Her work has also been featured in Smithsonian and she’s designed several published book covers in her career as a graphic artist.