by Jack El-Hai, Wonders & Marvels contributor
Maurice Tillet was a bear of a man: He stood 67 inches, weighed 270 pounds, and had the strength to tug a subway car along its tracks. He seemed a perfect competitor for professional wrestling during the late 1930s and 1940s, except for one startling disability. During his young adulthood, Tillet had developed an endocrine disorder called acromegaly, the result of his pituitary gland’s overproduction of growth hormone.
Untreated, acromegaly can produce humans of gigantic size, such as Charles Byrne, known during the eighteenth century as The Irish Giant; Ted Cassidy, who played Lurch in The Addams Family; and Richard Kiel, the evildoer in James Bond films who topped seven feeet. In Tillet, however, acromegaly did something different. While leaving him of normal stature, it grew his head to gigantic proportions and gave his body a barrel-like appearance not unlike Fred Flintstone’s. Instead of handicapping him in wrestling, the disorder proved to be a boon by lending him a dramatic appearance. Tillet thrived in the sport, spending several years as the reigning World Wrestling Federation champion.
Born to French parents in the Ural Mountains in 1903, Tillet developed normally as a child and drew attention for his slim build and sharp mind. His friends, who nicknamed him Angel, were impressed by Tillet’s ability to speak several languages. His family fled to France during the Russian Revolution, and soon after he began to notice a painful swelling over his body, the first symptoms of acromegaly. He gave up his dream of becoming a lawyer and joined the French navy.
While in the military, Tillet met a wrestling promoter who convinced him to take up the sport. Retaining his childhood nickname, he wrestled with great success in Europe and moved to North America after the outbreak of World War II. There he pinned one opponent after another, racking up his string of world championships. Wrestling fans were even more entranced by his appearance than his masterful technique. People, convinced he was a real-life ogre, saw him as a freak and a monstrosity.
In 1940, under the watchful cameras of LIFE magazine, Tillet underwent an examination by the then-noted (and now notorious) Harvard anthropologist Carleton Coon. The anthropologist took special note of Tillet’s oversized jaw and gigantic hands and feet. After measuring the wrestler’s head and other body parts, Coon suggested that Tillet “might be a throwback” to Neanderthal man, the magazine’s reporter noted. But Tillet was not a caveman — only an athlete who had made the most of a disability that now can be controlled by combinations of drugs, surgery, and other treatments.
Tillet continued wrestling into the 1950s — inspiring a host of “Angel” imitators who styled themselves a primitive brutes — when his prowess declined and his efforts no longer ranked as championship quality. Heart disease ended his life in 1954, but not before he consented to allow an artist to make a plaster death mask. A copy of that mask has a place of honor in the USA Weightlifting Hall of Fame. Tillet won election to the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2012.
“The Angel.” LIFE magazine, March 4, 1940.
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