Ewing posed for this photo which she sold at circuses and fairs
where she exhibited as the worlds tallest woman. She claimed
to be 8 feet, 4 inches tall. Photo courtesy of Grace Gilbert, supplied
by Kathy Jenkins.
Few events were
more memorable at the dawn of the 20th century than seeing elephants,
trapeze artists and clowns when the circus came to town. But for many,
the most amazing sight at the circus was often a gentle woman from tiny
In her 1977 masters
thesis Barbara Chasteen described the scene as visitors to the Ringling
Bros. circus walked past the sideshow tents on their way to the big
top. Marvelously painted canvas tents heralded the human oddities inside
and the grandest illustration of them all proclaimed Ella Ewing,
the Missouri Giantess."
barker, from his vantage point in one of those gray stands so like a
pulpit, persuasively made his pitch to entice the crowd. He cried Come
in and see the tall girl from Mizzoura. Only 10 cents, one dime! The
tallest person on earth today! Chasteen, now Barbara Campbell,
wrote in Ella K. Ewing, Missouri Giantess: 1872-1913.
Few outside the
small farming communities of Memphis and Gorin have heard of Ella Ewing,
the giantess who once toured the nation with the Ringling Bros. and
Barnum & Bailey circuses. But in northeast Missouri she is remembered
not just for her great size but also for a kind heart and generous spirit.
She had a
wonderful disposition, says Grace Gilbert whose grandmother lived
across the road from the Ewing family. Gilbert, who now lives in Maysville,
was born in Gorin five years before Ellas death in 1913 and grew
up hearing stories about the gentle giantess of Scotland County.
me she was loved by everybody, Gilbert says. As she got
a little older they realized that they had something that no one else
had. There was somebody in their community that was taller than anybody
anyone had ever known.
Little proof of
her exact height exists and the Guinness Book of World Records
refuses to acknowledge her for lack of documentation, but Miss Ella
is widely reported to have stood well over 8 feet tall. If accurate,
this would make her the tallest woman who ever lived.
Born in 1872 near
LaGrange, Ella developed normally until age 7 when she began to grow
at an alarming rate. By age 12 she was 6 foot 2, as tall as her father.
According to her mothers journal, Ella finally stopped growing
at age 22 at the staggering height of 8 feet, 4 inches.
Gorin resident Bette
Wiley discovered Annie Ewings journal in a box of junk her husband
brought home from an auction. In Our Miss Ella, her 1990
book based on the journal, Wiley recalls Ben Ewings description
of his daughters growth.
was growing faster than his own cornfield and sometimes they almost
couldnt tell if it was Ellas joints cracking or the corn
growing, Wiley wrote. Her knees and shoulders creaked with
every move she made, and not without a painful reminder to her that
it was she who was making the growing sounds, and not the corn in the
Wiley stands beside Ellas tombstone and a memorial marker
in her honor at the Harmony Grove Baptist Church near Gorin. Wiley
found a copy of Annie Ewings journal and wrote a book, Our
Miss Ella, about the giantess. Ella is buried next to her
mother and father. The marker, placed next to the family tombstone
in 1967, lists her height at 8 foot, 4 and 1/2 inches and her
weight at 256 pounds. The date of her death is inscribed incorrectly
as 1912. Ella died in 1913.
Modern science understands
that tumors can cause the pituitary gland to produce too much human
growth hormone. Today, acromegaly, the condition that results in giantism,
is treated with drugs or radiation. But in the late 1800s, no such treatment
the safety of Rainbow, a tiny settlement south of Gorin, Ella was accepted
by friends and neighbors. But an incident when she was just 14 exposed
the family to the cruelty of strangers.
The child, already
6-foot-10, was asked to recite the Declaration of Independence at a
July 4 celebration in nearby Wyaconda. When she stood to read Ella was
greeted by gasps, laughter and exclamations of horror. She was so shaken
from the experience that she was unable to speak and fled the stage.
On the long ride
back home to Gorin Ben Ewing exclaimed, By golly dang, they aint
never going to get a chance to do that to our Ella again, Annie
wrote in her journal.
the normally warm greeting the Ewings extended visitors turned to anger
when Chicago museum owner Lewis Epstein called on the family in 1892.
Epstein had heard of the giantess from Gorin and came to ask her to
appear at his museum. Ben tossed Epstein out but Ella, who was secretly
listening in the next room, began to imagine a better life.
When Epstein returned
with another offer the family reconsidered. As a family friend is quoted
saying, If people are going to gawk at you, you might as well
make them pay.
$1,000 for a four-week engagement. In addition, Ellas parents
could travel with her. While the family was apprehensive about exposing
their only daughter to the public, they understood what the money would
mean for their lives.
is shown in a photo with her parents, taken around 1896. Ella always
traveled with a chaperone, first both parents, then her mother alone
and, after her mothers death, with a family friend. Photo
from the Gorin Centennial Book supplied by Kathy Jenkins.
I am so grateful
for this opportunity that God is offering to me, to earn some money
so I can help Mama and Papa a little and to get me some furniture that
fits me, Wiley reports Ella told her neighbors. I can't
even remember when I ever laid in a bed comfortably or sat in a rocking
chair, or stood straight up except when I am outside.
For 27 days, seven
hours a day, Ella stood as museum patrons passed by awed and speechless.
As the days wore on, Ella, then 20, adjusted to the attention. She
became more relaxed, more prone to offer a shy smile occasionally as
she gained confidence and overcame the mental anguish the situation
had naturally created in her mind, Wiley wrote.
Back home in Gorin,
the Ewings regaled friends of all they had seen in Chicago before heading
home to their tiny cabin. According to Wiley, the family knew their
lives had changed forever, and for the better.
not have dreamed that circumstances would change so rapidly for them,
Wiley wrote. They
were resigned to a life of stark poverty with very little to look forward
to except clothing Ella while she suffered with her endless pain and
growing, and furniture always too small and ceilings too low. Then abruptly
it had all changed. During the train ride home Ella was already making
plans for her dream house . . .
The dream of building
a home sized for her proportions began to come true when Epstein invited
Ella to return for another engagement. The museum would pay $5,000 for
a five-month exhibition but Ben Ewing, concerned about the family farm,
balked at the idea. Ella reminded her father that he could not earn
$5,000 if he farmed for five years and encouraged him to sell the family
livestock and purchase more upon their return.
And thus began the
pattern that would shape the familys life for nearly 20 years.
Ella traveled to museums and fairs where she sometimes appeared in her
own tent. Often Ellas trips were scheduled around planting season
on the farm and always her engagement lasted only long enough to provide
a good living for the family.
Because of her strong
religious beliefs Ella did not appear on Sundays. When exhibiting, she
often played the organ or sang hymns. Typically, though, she merely
stood, dressed in long sequin-trimmed dresses, and greeted the curious
who paid 10 cents to look and a quarter to shake her hand. Souvenir
photos sold for a dime.
Although she adapted
to public exhibition, Ella would not permit people to see her feet.
A 1973 Edina Sentinel article recalls her response to a request
to show her size 22 shoes. You want too much for your money,
Ella reportedly said.
In 1897 Ella joined
the cast of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, often appearing with a 23-inch-tall
Russian dwarf named Peter the Small. Ella would hold Peter
in her hand or cover him with a top hat. In the Ella Ewing room at the
Downing House Museum in Memphis, Mo., one of Peters tiny gloves
is on display next to Ellas enormous glove.
When the circus
scheduled a European tour Ella didnt go, fearing inadequate accommodations
on the overseas voyage. Instead, she returned home, paid off her fathers
farm note, bought better land and hired workers to build her dream home.
photograph by Townsend Godsey shows Ellas house after it
had fallen into disrepair. The house featured 10-foot ceilings
and doors more than 8 feet tall. The house burned to the ground
in the 1960s. Photo used by permission, State Historical Society
of Missouri, Columbia.
The first floor
of the two-story home had 10-foot ceilings, doorways that measured 8
feet, 8 inches and windows nearly as tall. Not only was the home sized
to fit Ella but much of the furniture was as well. Besides a bed measuring
more than 9 feet long, Ella had several chairs made to fit her frame.
Finally Ella had a home where she was comfortable.
Ben and me
are so happy to see Ella stretched out full length on her very own bed,
but our joy does not even come close to hers, Annie wrote in her
journal. The delight she feels when she walks through them doors
and no need to duck her head or to bend over . . . And the windows!
She does love to stand and look out, first one and then the other.
Her house built,
Ella resumed touring, appearing briefly with Buffalo Bills Wild
West Show. The rough characters traveling with that group offended Ella
and her mother so she broke her contract and left the show. In 1899
Annie died suddenly while Ella was appearing in Chicago.
In time, Ella continued
her career, traveling to St. Louis for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition
and touring with the Ringling Bros. Circus. And although an overzealous
promoter once announced her engagement to a giant from Montana, she
never married and had never even met the man she was rumored to wed.
I have had what the world might call romances: that is, I have had offers
of marriages; but I call them business propositions. And that is not
my idea of marriage, Ella told the New York World. As
for marriage, I believe my views in regard to it are the same as those
of any other truly womanly woman. Wife, mother, and housekeeper are
the three things woman's being requires to make her life complete .
. . But my size will prevent me from marrying.
Despite her traditional
views on marriage, Ella was a truly modern woman.
was very liberated, says Kathy Jenkins, whose grandfather owned
Ellas home after Ben Ewing died in 1933. She had her own
money. She designed her own exhibition gowns. She designed her own home.
And she provided income for her family.
Jenkins, an artist
for a Cincinnati advertising firm, read Wileys book and was taken
with Ella and her caring family. Jenkins created a Web
site to share the Miss Ella story with her family and the world.
It was fascinating
not just because she was this tall woman that lived near my family but
because she was raised to reach her potential, Jenkins says.
June Kapfer, curator of the Downing House Museum in Memphis, Mo.,
displays one of Ella Ewings size 22 shoes. The museum also
contains Ellas bed, a door from her house, clothing, photographs
and other artifacts.
Indeed, those who
speak of Ella Ewing today quickly turn away from her freakish height
and speak of her personality.
her height that was striking. It was her spirit, her morals, her outgoing
personality, says Wiley. She loved people.
Ella died of tuberculosis
at home in 1913 at age 40. Nearly 900 mourners attended her funeral.
Her father, fearing curiosity seekers would disturb her grave, had her
custom-made casket placed in a steel vault lined with cement and posted
She lived surprisingly
long for a giant. It was a full life, too. Ella traveled widely and
saw things her neighbors in Gorin could only dream of. She was active
in her church and enjoyed the outdoors and making fine embroidery. By
all accounts she loved life and the people she met.
The Ewing home is
long gone, the victim of neglect and souvenir hunters. The walls, they
say, were inscribed with the names of visitors from across the country.
The house burned to the ground in 1967.
Three of Ellas shoes sit in storage in the state Capitol museum
in Jefferson City, no longer on display.
Another shoe can
be seen at the Downing House Museum in Memphis, along with her bed,
some clothing, photographs and other artifacts. A small Conservation
Department lake bears her name near Gorin.
A long monument
marks Ellas grave at the Harmony Grove Baptist Church cemetery.
The marker, placed next to her tombstone in 1967, bears the wrong date
of her death.
Ella Ewing left
no will and little estate. And while few people outside northeast Missouri
know her name those whose roots reach into the soil of the area speak
of her with reverence and pride.
I think shes
a very inspirational person, Jenkins says. She really was
Our Miss Ella and Barbara Campbells thesis are both
long out of print. For more information about Ella Ewing see Kathy Jenkins
Web site at www.ellaewing.freeservers.com.
The Downing House Museum, 311 South Main in Memphis, is open April through
September. For hours of operation call (660) 465-2275.