The International Museum of Surgical Science occupies a 106-year-old French-style mansion at 1516 N. Lake Shore Drive on the Gold Coast. Inside are terrifying artifacts of pre-modern medicine: a 16th-century Austrian amputation saw, iron lungs for polio patients, and ancient Peruvian skulls with holes drilled into the skull.
Perhaps the most unusual exhibit is the bust on the landing between the second and third floors. This is a bust of Maurice Tillet, the professional wrestler known as The French Angel. All his features are swollen beyond the human norm: the hunched forehead, the prominent nose, the protruding jaw, the flapping ears. It’s a face that may be familiar to fans of the popular animated series. More on that later. First, the story of how Tillet came to be who he is, how he came to Chicago, and why he was revived here.
Born in Russia in 1903 to French parents, Tillet took him home when the Russian Revolution broke out. At the time, Tillet was a typical teenager. At the age of 17, Tillett began to show the effects of acromegaly, a disorder in which the pituitary gland secretes excess growth hormone. Each hand has grown so large that it can hold and shuffle three decks of cards. His head has swelled to nearly twice the size of the warmest guy: from ear to ear, it measures 7.13 inches.
Tillett served six years as an engineer in the French Navy, earning a law degree, but felt that his broad, odd face made a legal career impossible. He experimented with the entertainment business, hoping his looks would win him movie roles. It doesn’t take a pretty face to become a star, just an unforgettable one. It helps to be on one end of the beauty curve. He had a small role as a shepherd in one of the famous films: Princess Tam TamWith Josephine Baker.
“After returning to civilian life, I tried a variety of jobs, but not with much luck,” Tillett recalled. “I decided to go to the theater a day after seeing a friend do it. I’ve worked in many films, but except for two or three, I never got a lead role. Being successful in the film industry takes a lot of luck, money and talent. I missed a little bit of everything.”
In 1936, Lithuanian wrestler Karl Bogelo visited Paris, where he discovered Tillet working as a janitor for a film studio. He thought that face belonged to the ring. The crowds will pay to see the villain, who looked like a relic of the prehistoric human race. The two men spoke in Russian. Bogelo was overjoyed when he learned that Tillett, who was 5-foot-8 and weighed 276 pounds, had won several amateur wrestling championships. Despite this, Tillett knew nothing of the mayhem required for professional wrestling. Pojello took him to a gym and trained him.
“We wrestled for 25 minutes while getting dressed in the gym,” Tillett said. “Carl, easily beat me in two minutes. I had no prior knowledge of wrestling at the time. Greco-Roman custom forbade touching the legs. Greco-Roman is all I know about wrestling.”
Biology is destiny, the saying goes, and so this cultured, multilingual man began his career as “the ugliest man in wrestling.” Bogelo taught Tillett to defeat opponents with a bear hug. in Nottingham, England, where 20,000 fans paid for the wrestler’s face to appear as “Angel” – his mother’s nickname for her son. In Manchester, 30,000 people stamped the door.
After the outbreak of World War II, Bogello and Tillett sailed to the United States, where they would live and perform for the rest of their lives. Tillet’s first match was at Boston Garden, where he wrestled and beat Luigi Pacigaluppi, two out of three falls. Before entering the ring, he ran through the crowd, roaring like the Neanderthals he was said to resemble. Then a team of Harvard scientists measured his head.
Tillett was one of the most popular wrestlers in the early 1940s, earning $1,000 a match. Wrestling from coast to coast, he went undefeated for nearly two years, holding the American Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Championship. Pojello and Tillett made Chicago their home, using their winnings to buy a (still standing) mansion at 726 W. Garfield Blvd. They lived in adjoining rooms and rented out the rest of the house to the boarders.
By the time Tillet reached his mid-forties, his health had begun to fail due to acromegaly. He was no longer a huge draw in the wrestling circuit, but he was a known face throughout Chicago. In 1949, A.A. platform Sportswriter Tillett spotted him at Mike Fritzl’s Café on State and Lake Streets. The columnist called him “a monkey-like creature whose face was so blurry it could have slipped a TV Fritzl”, but then went on to call him “a gentle soul who acts no more like Boris Karloff than a salary wrestler”. Tillet was once a teacher in France, his mind soaring to the highest peaks leaving his face on the floor of a Cro-Magnon cave. He is very sensitive and has been known to shed the same tears of sympathy over death. Marguerite in Faust as he does when he turns away from an opponent. »
In 1950 Louis Linke, a sculptor, like Tillet, from France to Chicago, designed the bust now on display at the Museum of Surgical Sciences and dedicated it to “my old friend, Maurice (Angel) Tillet”. (Link has also worked on many of the sculptures in the museum’s Hall of Immortals, including Hippocrates, Joseph Lister, Marie Curie, and Wilhelm Röntgen.)
Pogello died of lung cancer in 1954. Tillett, whose acromegaly had enlarged his heart, suffered a heart attack after learning of his manager’s death. The two men were buried together at Lithuania’s National Cemetery of Justice, under a banner reading “Inseparable Friends Until Death”. Telett’s face appears on the tombstone.
Tillet’s face may still be alive after his death. The story goes that the animators at the DreamWorks studio saw his death mask at the York Barbell Museum in Pennsylvania and used it as inspiration for Shrek. There is definitely a resemblance: a large head, a wide nose, and a wide mouth. If this story is true, Tillet’s appearance eventually made him a movie star.