David Navarro Jr.: The gentle giant

Tom McDermott
Posted 10/26/21

David Navarro Sr. settled in the Rochelle area in 1850.

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David Navarro Jr.: The gentle giant


David Navarro Sr. settled in the Rochelle area in 1850.

The area was known as Lane at the time. He settled on about 80 acres of government land where the current airport is located. Government land was given free to those hardy enough to settle on it and make improvements.

On June 22, 1861, David Navarro Jr. was born. A normal child in every way until age five, David Jr. was destined to be Rochelle’s most famous resident for the next 20 years. In 1875, Lane changed its name to Rochelle and in 1876, David Sr. sold his farm for $75 an acre and moved into a home at 620 Lincoln Ave. 

David Jr. was now five and his life was about to change forever. David began to gain weight. By age eight he weighed 165 pounds, more than his father. By age 12, David had to be taken next door to Braiden’s Lumber and Coal Yard to be weighed.

He tipped the scales at 325 pounds. When he reached the age of 13 he secured the services of a manager and was contracted to appear at carnivals, side shows and circuses. This is when he caught the eye of P.T. Barnum and became part of his traveling show.

Billed as “The Illinois Giant Boy,” David traveled across the country. In 1876 he was featured at the Philadelphia Centennial and billed as “The World’s Fattest Man.”

When not on the road, David Jr. was often found at the American Museum in New York. The museum was owned at that time by P.T. Barnum and featured true museum artifacts. In keeping with Barnum’s philosophy, the museum also housed a zoo, a theater and what was referred to as the world’s largest display of human oddities.

Tom Thumb, at 25 inches tall, was listed as the world’s shortest man. David Navarro at age 21, weighing a robust 735 pounds was now, “The World’s Largest Man.” David Sr. traveled with his son.

David Jr. needed assistance to accomplish even the most mundane tasks. With a 24-inch collar and a 97-inch waist, David Jr. could fill the stage, he just couldn’t walk across it. While working at the American Museum, David Jr. was seen by as many as 15,000 visitors a day.

David Jr. was making $50 a week and another $25 a week for souvenirs. Today that would be equivalent to $2,000 a week. David’s size was supporting his family. Unfortunately, his size was breaking his heart.

David Jr. was embarrassed by his size. As a child, the trips to Braiden’s to be weighed had been spectacles. Other children would call to their friends to come see the fat boy weighed. When he fell he would need help to get up. People would laugh and make cruel remarks about the “fat man.”

A simple two block trip from his family home to downtown Rochelle required a special chair and a wagon to haul David. At 21, David Navarro Jr. was trapped in a body that no longer allowed him to live a normal life, but the same body fed him and his family.

In 1882, David was one of the headliners at the “Harris Mammoth Sixth Street Museum” in Pittsburgh. It was here that David met Carrie Glendenning. Carrie saw more in David than he saw in himself.

The two fell in love and began planning a wedding. But fate can be cruel. David Navarro Jr. became ill, and was rushed to the hospital. Smallpox took the gentle giant’s life.

As a final insult, David could not even be returned to his hometown, as no train would transport him due to fears of smallpox. He was immediately buried in Pittsburgh and lies at rest there to this day.

Tom McDermott is a Flagg Township Museum Historian and Rochelle City Councilman.