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A Giant Life


Johan or “John” Aasen was born to a Norwegian family of giants. Or at least that was what he told circus spectators. He also claimed he weighed twenty-one pounds at birth; whether or not that’s possible I’ll leave up to your imagination. What we know for sure is that on this date in 1938, many were mourning the loss of a huge theatrical sensation. And North Dakotans felt a special link to Johan Aasen, or as he used to be called, the “New Rockford Giant” of Eddy County.

Johan’s mother was Kristi (Danielsdtr) Aasen, a Norwegian immigrant who arrived around 1890, seemingly alone. Little is known about the identity of Johan’s father, and this lack of knowledge helped rumors blossom. One rumor names his father as a Swede called Nils Jansson Bokke, who was known for being seven and a half feet tall. Since many say Kristi was around seven feet tall herself, it made sense that the pair would produce giant offspring. This is interesting, but Johan’s sister later claimed the father was someone else, and it may not even be tall parents that gave Johan his giant stature. It’s likely that he suffered from a rare condition called “gigantism.” Unfortunately, although it brought job opportunities, gigantism almost always means serious medical problems. Johan spent much of his adult life in and out of hospitals, and it was one of these complications that caused his death at the age of 48.

But he lived an event-filled life, and it started in Eddy County, North Dakota. His mother died young, and he and his sister were raised by kindhearted community members. When it didn’t seem like he would ever stop growing, he began a sideshow career as a giant. Ironically, it’s because of this career that we don’t have an exact measurement of his height: there was an unwritten law in the circus world that giants should never be measured. That way, every circus could claim to have “The Tallest Man in the World!”

In 1922, he was approached by Hal Roach and asked to star in a movie called “Why Worry?” after the giant slated to play the role had died. A member of the film team had read about a shoemaker in Minnesota who made a giant pair of shoes, and it was that shoemaker who led Roach to Johan, a turn of fate that proved pivotal in Johan’s career. He went on to roles in seven more pictures and embarked on an international tour before his death in 1938. And everyone who knew him said his benevolent nature outweighed his giant stature; perhaps a childhood in North Dakota had something to do with that.

Dakota Datebook written by Leewana Thomas

The Fargo Forum, August 3rd, 1938. “Circus Giant, Formerly of Eddy County, Is Dead”