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January 10, 2013

Legend of Miss Ella Still Stands Tall 100 Years After Her Passing

Ella Ewing - Missouri Giantess, reportedly stood 8 feet 4 1/2 inches tall.

Late last year, news broke out of China that the world's tallest woman had passed away. The Chinese state media reported that Yao Defen, age 39, had died November 13, 2012 at her home in China.

Just two years earlier, Guinness World Records had certified her as the world's tallest living woman at 7 feet and 7 inches.

That probably confused a lot of Scotland County residents. Ella Ewing reportedly stood nearly a foot taller when she passed away in Gorin 100 years ago, this week, on January 10, 1913.

Guinness refuses to recognize Ewing as the tallest woman in history, despite the fact that she was widely recognized at the time of her death as the world's largest woman at 8 ft. 4 1/2 inches tall. But because no official measurement was ever taken, the official title of world's tallest woman appears to have fallen to Zeng Jinlian, who at the time of her death in 1982, was a medically verified 8 ft 1.75 inches tall according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

So Ewing will have to settle for the title of the Missouri Giantess and a revered spot in local and state history.

It is highly likely that her reserved nature cost her the official title as the world's tallest woman.

"When she was but a young miss, her growth to an unnatural size began to develop and before she reached the age of 14, it was known that she would soon become easily the tallest woman in the neighborhood," said the January 13, 1913 Memphis Democrat article published at the time of Ewing's death. "At that time she was very sensitive on account of her great size and the attention she always attracted when she happened to be in a crowd of people."

In her book "Ella K. Ewing, Missouri Giantess: 1872-1913", author Barbara Chasteen Campbell described what was believed to have been one of Ella's first public appearances, which went awry.

"She was to read the Declaration of Independence as part of the celebration planned for the day," the book stated regarding an appearance at age 13 or 14 on the Fourth of July at the "Old Sutar Farm" near Wyaconda as described by Ewing family friend Joseph Buford to Chasteen. "It was then she first really became aware of the stares fixed upon her size, rather than her performance. She became so embarrassed that she cried and the reading had to be finished by a friend."

While by all accounts, harsh public reactions like these throughout Miss Ella's brief life had little effect on her gentle demeanor, it does appear they led her to the decision to be cremated upon her death.

Gerth Funeral Service, which handled the services for Ella Ewing 100 years ago, recorded the history in the company's archives, noting the fact that Miss Ella had long wished that her body be cremated, so as she would not be made a spectacle by scientists or worse - grave robbers.

The story was retold to Fritz Gerth, by his grandfather, Frederick Gerth, Sr., who traveled to Ewing's home via horse-drawn carriage to handle the arrangements. The Gerths noted that Ella's father, Ben, could not bear to adhere to Miss Ella's wishes for cremation, "He was very insistent that Ella have a regular funeral, but that she also have a burial that would not be vulnerable to vandals," Fritz recalls his father telling him.

The elder Gerth suggested a cement-lined steel vault to permanently seal the remains, so as they could not be exhumed later. Miss Ewing was buried in the cemetery adjoining the Harmony Grove Baptist Church and when the casket was placed in the vault, cement was poured on the vault before it was covered, so that no one could remove the body.

So 100 years ago, the record was sealed, leaving only local historians to defend Ewing's place among the tallest woman in history.

A young Miss Ella with her parents, Annie and Ben Ewing.

The marker at her graveside declares Ewing was 8 ft 4 1/2 inches tall and weighed 256 lbs. at the time of her death.

Numerous published reports also listed her at that height, but nothing official enough for Guinness to consider as documentation enough for a world record.

While there may not be proof enough for an official title, Ewing's height served her well enough in her lifetime.

Eventually she overcame the shyness caused by her condition, thanks in large part to the lure of financial gain proposed by various showmen of the time.

Campbell's book uncovered Miss Ella's first big break. A store owner recently had moved to Wyaconda from Chicago. He was in the crowd the day Ewing took the stage for the Independence Day celebration and spread the news of "the giantess" to a friend back home in Chicago, Lewis Epstein.

Epstein made the trip to Scotland County and met with the Ewing family to propose an exhibit at his Chicago museum.

The first of several trips by Epstein was met with resistance from Ella's father, Ben, who refused to benefit financially from the spectacle of his daughter's height.

"For seven years of our lives, we had watched over and nurtured a perfectly normal and physically beautiful extension of ourselves and our union while we toiled and labored daily in order to establish a loving, peaceful, and God fearing home life," Ella's mother Annie wrote in her memoirs, the subject of the book Our Miss Ella by Bette Wiley. "There wasn't no Mr. Epstein from Chicago going to come here and tell us what we ought to be doing with our daughter when we had already done the very best we knew how to do in our circumstances and we are quite perfectly happy in doing it."

Ultimately family friends, including Buford, helped convince the family to take advantage of the financial opportunity. "If people were going to gawk, make them pay," Buford is quoted in Campbell's book as telling the family.

So with a $1,000 payment in the bank, Ella, along with mother and father, boarded a train for Chicago for a month long exhibition at Epstein's museum in 1890.

The trip went well enough, that the family returned for a five-month engagement that winter, netting the family a reported $5,000 payment.

The family's bank account was not the only thing growing. According to Wiley's book, Miss Ella grew two inches while in Chicago, further adding to her stature.

The Mississippi Giantess as she became known, saw the demand for public appearances grow along with her height.

In 1983, the family returned to Chicago for the World's Columbian Exposition, a world's fair marking the 400th year anniversary of Columbus discovering America. According to Campbell's book, the fair drew an average of 45,000 visitors a day in the first month, for a variety of exhibits, including the "gentle giantess".

Campbell suggested it was here that representatives from the Barnum & Bailey Circus likely first learned of Miss Ella.

But their endeavors to retain her services did not begin immediately. Instead, Miss Ella returned home and embarked on a circuit of exhibits at local fairs and festivals, many like the one Campbell's book described.

"On August 29 (1894) Ella exhibited at the Keosauqua Fair in Iowa," the book quoted from a Memphis Reveille newspaper article. "A fee of 10 cents per person was charged to enter Miss Ella Ewing's tent. She drew tremendous crowds - 2,600 people paid on just one day for the privilege of seeing the tallest woman in the world."

Even with the windfall created by her growing popularity, Miss Ella and her family always returned to their home in Scotland County.

Her neighbors at the time, Hugh and Julian Luck recalled how the popularity impacted their friend, when they were interviewed in the Quincy Herald-Whig in 1986. At that time, the bachelor brothers were in their 90's, but told reporter Eric Johnson "No one envied Miss Ella's fame or money. She had to endure humiliating stage shows. She dreaded the gawkers and mischievous boys who would prick her legs with pins to see if she was standing on stilts."

But Miss Ella pressed on with her public appearances. After several years of touring fairs and performing museum exhibits, Ella Ewing in 1897 signed a 26-week contract with the Barnum and Bailey Circus. She kicked off the deal, which paid her $125 a week, by traveling to New York City for the season's debut at Madison Square Garden.

During the circus's stop in St. Louis, she did a newspaper interview that was published in the Post-Dispatch on June 1, 1897. Campbell turned to the newspaper piece to demonstrate how Ewing's attitude towards her popularity had changed.

"It was terribly embarrassing to me at first," Ewing was quoted as saying in the article. "But I have almost gotten used to it now and enjoy the traveling and excitement. I spend my vacations at home, and after a week or so I get very lonesome."

Financial successes of this sort allowed Miss Ella to not only pay off the mortgage on her father's 80 acre farm, but set in motion the purchase of another farm and the construction of a custom home to meet her height needs, including doorways that would accommodate her stature.

As Wiley's book reveals, the home, complete with 10-foot ceilings, tall windows and custom furniture, was a dream come true for the Ewings.

"Ben and me are so happy to see our Ella stretched out full length on her very own bed, but our joy does not even come close to hers," Wiley retells from Annie's journal. "The delight she feels when she walks through them doors and no need to duck her head or to bend over, or when she sits in one of her chairs that really do fit her, and the windows! She does love to stand and look out, first one and then the other."

Ella's travels allowed her to fund her dream home, complete with doors and ceilings to fit her height.

According to Campbell, Miss Ella elected not to return to the circus in 1898, in large part due to the circus's plans to travel overseas to Europe. Instead she joined the Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. But she bowed out of that arrangement half way through the year and returned home.

Over the next several years, she continued to do regional exhibits and returned often to Chicago. It was on one of these trips that her mother became ill. Annie died of pneumonia on March 23, 1900 in Chicago.

Ella Ewing's stature is on display in this photo with her father, Ben Ewing, who reportedly stood 6'2" tall, and her mother Annie's sister, who came to live with the family following Annie's death.

Miss Ella returned to the tour circuit the following year and traveled extensively across the United States and Canada. In 1907 she returned to the circus, joining the Ringling Brothers for a 29-week national tour.

Her exhibition schedule slowed down over the next two years before Miss Ella's health ultimately forced her to retire 1911.

According to Campbell's book, Ewing was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and also battled other maladies over her final two years. She passed away January 10, 1913 at the age of 40.

An estimated 800 to 900 mourners attended the funeral at Harmony Grove Church.

Even after the passing of the giantess, her memory was marked well by her custom home. But the building was eventually abandoned, and Campbell's book points out that it was somewhat of a tourist site, with sightseers trespassing on the property, filling the building's interior with graffiti, as visitors signed their names along with the year and where they were visiting from.

As the building fell into complete disrepair, a local movement began to raise the funds needed to purchase and restore the home, but that process was cut short by a fire that destroyed the building in 1967.

The history of Miss Ella now is left to be retold by the books, Ella K. Ewing Missouri Giantess:1872-1913 by Barbara Chasteen Campbell; and Our Miss Ella by Bette J. Wiley; and through the display at the Downing House Museum; and in the archive files of the Scotland County Memorial Library.

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