Heavy

By the time he died at 32 in 1958, Robert Earl Hughes of tiny Fishhook, Illinois, weighed more than 1,000 pounds, earning a place in The Guinness Book of World Records as the largest man on earth. Except for his neighbors and family, few people knew much about his life until recently, when an astonishing photograph sent the author in search of Hughes’s real story: Raised in a sharecropper’s cabin, trapped in­side half a ton of flesh, this literate, companionable young man had dreamed of seeing the world. Aside from some carnival tours and one disastrous trip to New York, he never lived his dream. But in his short life, he found something else.

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In the 1950s, doctors could do little more than recommend dieting for the severely obese. Today, clinics throughout the world specialize in advanced treatments for severe obesity.

“I’ve treated many in the 600-pound range very successfully with surgery,” says Robert Kushner, medical director of the  Wellness Institute at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. The surgery Dr. Kushner favors is not the massive liposuction one might expect, but rather the stomach stapling made famous by Carnie Wilson and Roseanne. The stapling reduces the size of the stomach to that of a child. Even today, however, Robert Earl would present singular problems.

“At 1,000 pounds, he would be much too high a risk for surgery,” says Kushner, whose heaviest patient weighed 780 pounds. “I’d be afraid Mr. Hughes wouldn’t get off the ventilator and would die postoperatively. So he first would have to go on a very strict diet in order to allow him to take deeper breaths and reduce the load on his heart. Perhaps then, at 700 pounds, stapling would be appropriate.”

Dr. Kushner says that the early explanation for Robert Earl’s size—a glandular disorder brought on by whooping cough—is perfectly plausible. Reports that he ate only slightly more than average hearty eaters are less so. “A lot of eating by the severely obese is done when no one is around; it’s secretive,” the doctor says. “Many of my patients don’t perceive that they’re eating a lot of food, but even in cases of glandular disorders like Mr. Hughes, the calories must come from somewhere. Still, it is believable that he did not have to eat massive amounts in order to grow that large.”

In the United States, 61 percent of adults are overweight. Between 3 percent and 5 percent of the American population—or about 11 million people—are severely obese (more than 100 pounds overweight). In treating his patients, Dr. Kushner has come to glimpse a side of human behavior few of us might care to know. They routinely tell him about children yelling, “Look at that fat pig!” They tell him about nailing three job interviews by phone, only to interview in person with a manager who cannot even make eye contact before dismissing them. They tell him about stepping aboard an airplane and watching everyone pray that they sit somewhere else. They tell him about strangers removing items from their grocery carts and saying, “You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“When I finished my medical training, it became clear that these were people who had more than a desperate need for treatment,” Dr. Kushner says. “They needed a little understanding, too.”

* * *

Robert Earl’s New York experience did little to  derail him from the carnival circuit. In 1957, now traveling with Guy and Lillian, Robert Earl honored bookings throughout the country. Walking, even with his massive cane, had become nearly impossible for the 31-year-old, who almost certainly weighed in excess of the 1,041-pound figure that had been painted on his trailer the year before—a rare example of a screaming carnival boast that understated the facts. In September, word reached the carnival that Abe Hughes, Robert Earl’s father, had died at age 79. Guy and Lillian returned to Illinois for the funeral, but Robert Earl stayed on, believing it his duty to honor his commitments. At season’s end, he returned to Guy’s farm, unable to walk more than a few feet without the assistance of family, who would follow closely, lugging the giant chair the stranger had designed for him years before.

Robert Earl spent this off-season, as he had several others, answering hundreds of pieces of mail from pen pals and friends he’d met on tour, and sewing quilt squares for his nieces, whom he adored. (While Robert Earl’s body was enormous, his hands and size ten feet were of normal size and functioned perfectly.) At age 31, he had already outlived the doctor’s prediction by more than double.

In 1958, Robert Earl joined the Gooding Amusement Company for a Midwest tour. Near South Bend, he complained to Lillian about a skin rash and fatigue. When Lillian suggested that he take a nap, Robert Earl replied that he was afraid that if he went to sleep, he would never wake up. Lillian had heard enough. She and Guy drove Robert Earl in the “World’s Largest Man!” trailer to a parking lot in Bremen, Indiana, where they summoned medical help. Doctors connected three blood pressure cuffs to fit Robert Earl’s arm. Diagnosing measles, the doctors administered an injection, most likely to stimulate his kidneys. Within hours, Robert Earl’s fingernails turned blue and he slipped into a coma. The doctor ordered Robert Earl to the Bremen hospital.

There, hospital staff realized he could not be wedged into a room. Oxygen was wheeled to the trailer, where Guy and Lillian kept a vigil, mopping his brow and holding his hand. When Lillian began to wash Robert Earl’s feet, Guy looked at his apparently comatose brother and worried aloud that Robert Earl did not even know who was cleaning him. Robert Earl moved a bit and said, “Lillian is washing my feet.” He never spoke again. Two days later, Robert Earl was dead of congestive heart failure. He was 32.

Doctors immediately requested permission to perform an autopsy. Guy refused; why hurt him any more? Still inside the carnival trailer, Robert Earl’s body was driven to a local funeral home, where embalmers climbed in and began their work. Embalming equipment was hooked to a heavy-duty drainage system at a nearby garage. Dozens of gallons of embalming fluid were pumped into the body. Eight hours later, the job was finished. The funeral home didn’t charge Guy a dime extra. Today, when Duwaine Elliott thinks about embalming Robert Earl, he remembers little of the equipment or the long day inside the trailer. Instead, he sees Robert Earl’s face. “He had such a youthful face,” Elliott says. “I’ll always remember his young face.”

Lillian’s brother drove Robert Earl back to the Fishhook area for the funeral, but the family had to wait a few days for Iowa casket makers to finish building the custom steel-reinforced coffin. (Robert Earl was not buried in a piano case, as the Guinness Book reported for decades.) About 2,000 people attended the open-casket funeral, and many of them joked and frolicked and hunted for souvenirs. State police accompanied the procession to a tiny cemetery in Benville, Illinois, where a crane lowered Robert Earl into a massive grave dug next to those of his parents. His tombstone, paid for by local residents, reads, “robert earl hughes / june 4, 1926–july 10, 1958 / world’s heaviest man / weight 1,041 pounds.”

* * *

I still have one more appointment before returning to Chicago. Guy and Lillian Hughes are expecting me at their home in tiny Emden, Missouri, about 75 miles west of Fishhook. Emden is the last place Robert Earl Hughes lived. Guy told me on the phone to look carefully for his house because it was small. “We were poor back in Robert’s day, and we’re still poor,” he said.

I knock at the back door of the Hughes house, where the driveway delivers visitors into a phalanx of yapping dogs. A tall, thin man motions me inside a small patio. There, against the frame of the house, next to a plastic garbage can and an old Indian blanket, rests what looks like a park bench. “That’s Robert’s chair,” the man says. “I’m Guy Hughes. This is my wife, Lillian.”

On the kitchen table are photo books that Guy, 73, and Lillian, 68, have pulled out for my inspection. “There’s the three of us boys with our teacher; here’s Robert at a clothing store appearance with Aunt Jemima; that’s Robert at the carnival.” On another table sits Robert Earl’s own scrapbook, crammed full of black-and-white snapshots of visitors, pen pals, a country music band from Jacksonville, Illinois, even 600-pound Ed Bauer of Campbellsport, Wisconsin, “The Big­gest Man in the Liquor Business.”

There are also photographs of several beautiful young women who had written him. “Love Janet.” “As ever, Lula Mary.” “Robert didn’t have any girlfriends,” Guy says. “A newspaper once asked him about marrying. He said, ‘A fella’s got to get a chance first.’ He never did say if he was lonely for a girl.”

For three hours, Guy and Lillian talk about Robert Earl, about his life and times and all those stories. But it is in the crevices of their memories, where details drop almost accidentally, that their recollections resonate. Robert Earl had hazel eyes, “something you never see in the pictures of him.” He was a handsome fella; “you just had to know how to look.” He used a little box camera, but he “made it take better pictures than the fancy ones these days.” Robert Earl’s parents sometimes called him Bob. They never forced him to diet because “they were nice to him about his weight.” When people talked to him at carnivals, they didn’t want to leave, not because he was fat, but because “there was something in him that made people like him.” Robert Earl used the word “heavy” to describe himself, not “fat.” If he was afraid of dying, he never let on to anyone. He believed in God.

I ask Guy if he thinks of Robert Earl when he sees a very heavy person today.

“It’s funny,” Guy says. “These days, when I see someone so heavy, I think, That’s a happy person.”

I leave my hotel early the next morning. Near Bloomington on Route 55, I notice my left hand resting atop the steering wheel, pinky pointing up and left toward the horizon—my dad’s driving grip. I think about him leaning way back in those Lincoln Continentals—“the one car that fits me right”—and about all the trips he took by himself. As the rest stops and service stations fly by, I think my dad was OK on those trips—and it’s OK by me that we never got to talking about him being fat.

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