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Texas Trails

published: April 2nd 2021
by: Clay Coppedge

Tall Tales
    The original Long Tall Texans might have been the Shields Brothers of White Rock, Texas. Stack-ed atop each other, head-to-toe, Shadrack (Shade), Guss, Frank and Jack Shields would have measured almost 32 feet, according to circus promoter P.T. Barnum, who paid the Shields boys $100 a week in the 1880s to stand around and be tall. They were good at it.
    Three older, more settled Shields brothers were just as vertically gifted as their four younger brothers but decided to stick close to their Hunt County farms. The four youngest were more than eager to get out of the fields and join Barnum’s “Greatest Show on Earth” as The Texas Giants during the 1880s.
    Barnum listed their heights as just a shade under eight feet for three of the brothers while Shade, the runt, was listed at 7-foot-8. To make them look even taller, from head-to-toe, Barnum outfitted the Shields boys with pointed hats and elevator shoes.
    “There’s a sucker born every minute,” Barnum famously quipped, and only suckers believed the Shields brothers were eight-footers. An 1880 report listed Jack as the tallest of the brothers at seven feet tall. Descen-dants have said that Shade was 6-foot-6 and each of the other brothers was just a shade under seven feet, or a foot shorter than Barnum would have us believe.
    A decade of being gawked at for a living was enough for three of the brothers, but Shade stayed with it for a while longer. He married German-born Christina Dorothea “Ruth” Dunz, who was also very tall but certainly well short of the 7-foot-10 Barnum advertised. Red-haired Ruth had been married to another giant, William Patrick O’Brien, before she married Shade, and so Barnum gave her the stage name “The Irish Giantess Annie O’Brien.”
    Shade later joined his brother Guss in running a saloon in Greenville, Texas then moved to Missouri, where he sometimes performed on riverboats with three-foot-tall Major Ray. Shade enjoyed great popularity in Missouri, serving as a justice of the peace and two terms as mayor of Hornersville.
    We wonder what kind of “All Brother” basketball team the Shields boys would have fielded if only James Naismith had invented the sport when they were in their athletic prime. Frank Shields’ grandson, Marcus “Marc” Ross Freiberger, was a 6-foot-11 chip off the old block and a member of the United States men’s Olympic basketball team that won a gold medal at the 1952 games in Helsinki.
    Jack Earle, who was born Jacob Rheuben Erlich in Denver but grew up in El Paso, would have dwarfed the tallest of the Shields brothers. Most sources list Earle as 8-foot-6, though some have him at a more diminutive 7-foot-8.
    This is all the more remarkable because Earle weighed barely four pounds at birth and wasn’t expected to survive. Around the age of six or seven, though, he hit a furious growth spurt that wouldn’t stop; he was six feet tall by the time he was 10 years old. He took backstreets and alleys to school because he didn’t want to scare the other children. A trip to Hollywood when he was 13 years old and seven feet tall led to a movie career playing giants in dozens of 1920s movies, including, of course, “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Hansel and Gretel.”
    During the filming of one movie, Earle fell 14 feet from some scaffolding and was, for a time, blind. Doctors discovered a tumor on his pituitary gland. The fall had pushed the tumor into the optic nerve, which caused him to lose his sight. Over the course of several months the doctors attacked the tumor with x-rays. In time, Earle’s vision returned and his incredible rate of growth reportedly stopped.
    Earle returned to Texas where he became the tallest ever graduate of the University of El Paso. He signed on with the Ringling Brothers circus for 14 years then gave up the circus life to become a top salesman for the Roma Wine Company in California.
    Earle was by all accounts a thoughtful and creative soul, an award-winning photographer who also dabbled in art, sculpture and poetry. He was only 46 years old when he died in El Paso in 1952.

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