Men and women who are exceptionally tall, who stand out in a crowd, who literally tower over the rest of us, certainly draw our attention. They fascinate us. Often, they become entertainers — André the Giant parlayed his size first in professional wrestling and then acting. Today, people of unusual height, particularly in basketball, use it to achieve success — think Manute Bol, Shawn Bradley, and Yao Ming, who all measured 7 feet 6 inches or greater. But, back in the 1800s, such opportunities were lacking. People who stood out, literally, became curiosities, touring as part of so-called “freak” shows. Such was the fate of Mikel Jokin Eleizegi Arteaga, the Basque Giant.
- Mikel, known as the Giant of Alzo (Altzo in Basque), was born on July 10, 1818, in the baserri Ipintza-zar in the town of Altzo, in Gipuzkoa, just outside of Tolosa and about 20 miles south of Donostia. He died on November 20, 1861 at the age of 43.
- Mikel was the largest person in Europe during his time. He was 7 feet 5 inches (2.27 meters) tall and had a wing span (length from fingertip to fingertip) of 7 feet 11 inches (2.42 meters). At his largest, he weighed 467 pounds or 212 kilograms.
- During his lifetime, Mikel became a celebrity due to his enormous stature. After being discovered by José Antonio Arzadun of Lecumberri, Nafarroa, he became part of Arzadun’s traveling exhibit, touring Europe with his first stop being in Bilbao. His contract, signed in 1843, stipulated that Mikel would be allowed to go to mass every day, no matter where he was, and that all of Mikel’s tobacco would be paid for). At the height of his celebrity, Mikel met with four kings and queens: Isabel II of Spain, Luis Felipe I of France, María de la Gloria of Portugal, and Victoria I of the United Kingdom.
- A businessman, who saw a potential sensation, arranged for Mikel to meet a giantess from England and asked if they would like to get married. The woman immediately said yes, but Mikel responded, saying to his father who was with him “Aita guazen Altzo-ra” (Aita, let’s go back to Altzo).
- Like many who grow to such large sizes, Mikel suffered from acromegaly, or gigantism. André the Giant and Ted Cassidy, who played Lurch on The Addams Family, also suffered from the same disease.
- Upon his death, he was buried in Altzo, but there was always a suspicion that his body had been dug up by either curious scientist or grave robbers, speculation fueled by the movie Handia (Giant), a fictionalization of Mikel’s life. However, in an excavation conducted in 2020, his bones were found exactly where they were supposed to be.
Primary sources: ELEICEGUI, Miguel Joaquín. Enciclopedia Auñamendi. Available at: http://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/es/eleicegui-miguel-joaquin/ar-37804/; Wikipedia; Donostia International Physics Center.