WORLD’S TALLEST WOMAN
“See that apple at the top of the tree? Well, Ella can get it down for me.”
—song lyrics about Ella Ewing
Most people don’t know the name of Ella Ewing, but pictures of the “Missouri Giantess” have been seen around the world. She was born in a small town and became the tallest woman in history. The 8′ 4 1/2″ woman lived a short life, much of which was spent touring the country with the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Her large frame made news while she was alive, but the question of what to do with her body in death also made for an interesting dilemma.
THE EARLY YEARS
Ella Ewing was born on March 9, 1872, in Lewis County and grew up near the village of Gorin (nearest town is Memphis). There was nothing abnormal about her early in life to signal a record body size. In fact, she was small and frail until about the age of nine when her growth spurt began. By the time she was a teenager, she was just a playful young girl, albeit living in a 6′ 9″ body. Word was beginning to spread about the giant who lived on the farm, so the family tried to keep her sheltered from curious onlookers who came to northeast Missouri looking to take pictures. The family was somewhat embarrassed by the attention, and it was just a matter of time before hordes of people wanted to see what a real-life “lady giant” looked like.
RISE TO FAME
Circuses were big entertainment and big business in the late 1800s. Ella’s family was poor and needed financial help but refused offers from traveling shows to make her part of the act. They finally relented when the offers got high enough to ensure the family could travel together. She was a popular attraction at every stop, and the money was rolling in. Even greater fame and fortune was right around the corner as the most famous circus in the world got wind of the “giantess.”
SHOW ME SUCCESS
The Barnum and Bailey Circus made an offer to Ella to make her the biggest act in their show. At first, her father was angry at the thought of his daughter becoming a sideshow act. When he realized the lucrative possibilities, he consented and the entire family went on tour with the show once again, which launched a seventeen-year career on the circus circuit.
The 8′ 4 1/2″ woman, with size 24 shoes, was bringing in large crowds for Barnum and Bailey. Her pay increased as her fame spread throughout the United States and Canada. Even though many thought she was part of a freak show, the circus was where she found companies who also dealt with “unusual” physical issues. It was a business full of strange characters that likely didn’t see her as unusual or different. She spent the rest of her life on tour, which proved to be rough on her large body. She got sick with pneumonia while on the road, dying soon afterward at forty years old.
Even in death her family had to deal with the effects of her fame. The family constantly had to worry about grave robbers stealing her body for medical purposes or exploitation. In fact, Ella wanted to be cremated so her body wouldn’t be stolen, but her father went against her wishes and had a traditional burial.
After burial arrangements were made, a casket company worked around the clock to build a coffin that would hold her body. It was so long that the horse-drawn carriage had the seats removed so the back doors could close behind the casket.
*Ella often appeared with a twenty-three-inch-tall Russian dwarf named “Peter the Small.”
*Her shoes are on display at the Missouri Capitol and the Downing Museum in Memphis, Mo.
*In 1969, the Missouri Department of Conservation named a fifteen-acre lake near Gorin the Ella Ewing Lake.
Famous People from Missouri