by Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator
Awhile ago, faithful CCHS volunteer Kristen (you can read about her awesome work here) told me about something interesting she found while working with our collections. It was a brief article transcribed from the Star Gazette in 1926 about a man named Charles Bradley. At that time, Bradley was reported to be the tallest man in Chemung County and the second tallest in the United States. His height was said to be 7' 4" (although some reports claimed he was upwards of 7' 7"). Given my long-standing interest in all things historical oddities/travelling show/spectacle/performance (which you can read about here, here, here, here, here, or here), I just had to know more.
Charles Bradley was born in Antrim, PA around 1892. There isn't much information about the family other than they were farmers and that they were all tall. Really tall. John Bradley, Charles' father, was somewhere between 6' 9" and 7' 1" tall. His seven brothers and sisters all measured over 6 feet tall. One brother, Henry, was reported to be almost as tall as Charles. Bradley's mother, however, was only 5' 6."
Bradley's height brought him considerable attention and fame. In 1909, the then 17 year old and 7' 2" Bradley signed a contract to tour with the Barnum and Bailey Circus for a season that began in Champaign, Illinois in May of that year. This was allegedly not his first offer to join show business. Barnum and Bailey featured Bradley as the "Tallest Boy in the World" and made him wear a "Little Lord Fauntleroy" costume. He was exhibited next to the "World's Smallest Woman."
|Headline from 1909 when Bradley signed with Barnum and Bailey. They incorrectly report his age as 19 here (he was 17).|
He was still touring the country in 1911, although he was likely not still working for Barnum and Bailey. He billed himself as the tallest man in the world, although this was likely untrue. Bradley always wore his signature Uncle Sam costume, which "accentuated" his height. He cause quite a stir in New Ulm, Minnesota while on tour, walking down the town's streets in his Uncle Sam outfit. The local newspaper reported that the hotel even had to give him a special bed that was open at the foot so he would fit. According to the report, he was in town to advertise a brand of tobacco.
Bradley left show business by the 1920s. He reportedly got "tired of the life" and decided to try "industrial pursuits" instead. During this time, he lived in Corning, Elmira, and Elmira Heights. He did still get special recognition for his height. For example, he was a member of the Loyal Order of the Moose, and he was considered to be the tallest member of that fraternal organization in the world. He participated in Moose parades and events, often marching with Marguerite Morgan of Elmira, who at 40" tall, was believed to be the smallest Mooseheart member.
|Notice of an appearance in 1927.|
I'm not sure what happened to Bradley after the 1920s. Presumably, he tried to live his life as normally as possible. I'm not surprised that Bradley left show business. People have a long, nasty history of exploiting people with physical differences for entertainment. We don't know much about the circumstances that led to Bradley joining the circus, but an article from 1909 contains some language that makes me wonder how much of this was his idea and how much was his family's. According to the article, Bradley was to be "turned over to the managers" and would be "sent to join the circus." The report also stated, "This is the first time Bradley has submitted to becoming an exhibit." Bradley apparently hadn't been able to do much manual labor on the farm due to his unusually rapid growth. Perhaps, joining the circus was the way that he could best help support his family. Whatever, his reasons for joining the circus, he was lucky that he was able to leave when "he got tired of the life." Not all performers and "exhibits" could.