At one point, Johann Petursson was the tallest man alive. He was officially dethroned during his lifetime by the colossal Robert Wadlow but he is arguably the better remembered giant due to his showmanship, personality and longevity.
Johann was born in Dalvik, Iceland on February 9, 1913. He began life as Johann Svarfaelingur, the third child of nine and the only one of extraordinary size. By the time he was twenty-years-old, Johann stood a purported eight feet, eight inches tall and wore a size 24 shoe. He was a gentle man, a man of soft words and warmth. Despite towering over them, children loved Johann and he was more than happy to hoist them onto his shoulder.
During his adolescence Johann was a popular young man, due more to his outgoing personality than his height. In fact, he wasn’t treated as a ‘big deal’ in his town and the locals barely raised an eyebrow when the giant walked by. Petursson was just another one of the lads, well liked by all. Unfortunately, due to his height, he was unemployable in his hometown. Johann could not squeeze into the tiny local shops.
In 1934, Johann left for Denmark and it was there that he realized he could earn a living simply by exhibiting himself. He had a fine suit made to fit his mammoth frame, his measurements were taken by a team of three men, and he then set off in search of fame and fortune.
Johann Petursson proved to be quite successful throughout Europe. He performed in music halls in an act with two dwarfs. His tiny partners would play miniature accordions while Petursson stood between them and played instruments of enormous proportion. The act continued for several years until World War II. During the conflict Petursson found himself stranded in Copenhagen where he took a job in the shipyards and waited out the war.
Unlike many giants, who are actually quite physically frail, by all reports Johann was in good health and incredibly strong. His time at the shipyard went quickly and effortlessly. At the end of the war Petursson resumed touring Europe until he was discovered by John Ringling, of the Ringling Bros., and was contracted to appear in the United States.
Johann Petursson began touring with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show during their 1948 season. Dressed in his Edwardian top hat and tails he began to command a salary of $200 a week. He also began selling giant-sized rings as souvenirs. While these rings fit his finger, one could also pass a silver dollar through them.
Petursson’s time with Ringling Bros. was brief. He soon joined a sideshow managed by Glen Porter and it was under the management of Porter that Johann would develop his most famous trademark. Porter, aware of Johann’s Icelandic and Nordic roots had his wife craft a costume consisting of Viking regalia and a giant helmet. Johann became known as The Viking Giant and his marketability instantly soared.
Eventually, Johann proved so popular and such a shrewd businessman that he broke away from management and went into business for himself. Petursson created a ‘Single-O’ show, a travelling show in which he was the only attraction. He saved over $50,000 in just five years which was a sizeable amount considering the era. Johan then decided to exhibit his enormous dimensions on the movie screen. In 1950 he starred opposite Jayne Mansfield as the prehistoric giant Guadi in Prehistoric Women. Thirty years later, he was featured in Carny, opposite Jodie Foster and Gary Busey. In 1981, he was featured in the astounding documentary Being Different with fellow marvel Robert Melvin.
At the age of 69, an incredible age for a giant, Johann initially retired to Gibsonton, Florida. His health, however, proved to falter quickly and soon he joined his brother in his beloved hometown of Davlik. Johann Petursson died there on November 26, 1984. A museum now sits not far from his grave. His possessions still draw curious crowds and a stir sense of wonder.
Watch a video of Johann here.