Rural Missouri Magazine
A Towering Spirit
Once the tallest woman in the world, Ella Ewing is remembered today as much for her kind heart as her 8-foot, 4-inch height

by Bob McEowen

Ella Ewing posed for this photo which she sold at circuses and fairs where she exhibited as the world’s 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 Gorin, Mo.

In her 1977 master’s 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."

“The sideshow 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 Ella’s death in 1913 and grew up hearing stories about the gentle giantess of Scotland County.

“They tell 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 mother’s journal, Ella finally stopped growing at age 22 at the staggering height of 8 feet, 4 inches.

Gorin resident Bette Wiley discovered Annie Ewing’s 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 Ewing’s description of his daughter’s growth.

“Miss Ella was growing faster than his own cornfield and sometimes they almost couldn’t tell if it was Ella’s 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 field.”

Bette Wiley stands beside Ella’s tombstone and a memorial marker in her honor at the Harmony Grove Baptist Church near Gorin. Wiley found a copy of Annie Ewing’s 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 existed.

Sheltered within 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 ain’t never going to get a chance to do that to our Ella again,” Annie wrote in her journal.

Not surprisingly, 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.”

Epstein offered $1,000 for a four-week engagement. In addition, Ella’s 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.

Ella 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 mother’s 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.

“They would 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 family’s life for nearly 20 years. Ella traveled to museums and fairs where she sometimes appeared in her own tent. Often Ella’s 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 Peter’s tiny gloves is on display next to Ella’s enormous glove.

When the circus scheduled a European tour Ella didn’t go, fearing inadequate accommodations on the overseas voyage. Instead, she returned home, paid off her father’s farm note, bought better land and hired workers to build her dream home.

This photograph by Townsend Godsey shows Ella’s 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 Bill’s 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.

“Yes, perhaps 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.

“Really, she was very liberated,” says Kathy Jenkins, whose grandfather owned Ella’s 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 Wiley’s 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.

Wilma June Kapfer, curator of the Downing House Museum in Memphis, Mo., displays one of Ella Ewing’s size 22 shoes. The museum also contains Ella’s 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.

“It wasn’t 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 a guard.

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 Ella’s 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 Ella’s 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 she’s a very inspirational person,” Jenkins says. “She really was incredible.”

Bette Wiley’s “Our Miss Ella” and Barbara Campbell’s thesis are both long out of print. For more information about Ella Ewing see Kathy Jenkins’ Web site at The Downing House Museum, 311 South Main in Memphis, is open April through September. For hours of operation call (660) 465-2275.

Rural Missouri | May 2019 Issue

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