P.T. Barnum The Tallest Lady
By Ken Zurski
Ella Kate Ewing literally “grew up” on a rural Midwest farm.
Born in La Grange, Missouri in 1872, Ewing was a normal sized toddler, but by the age of six began to quickly grow. By age 14, Ella had sprouted to over six feet tall, nearly a full foot or two taller than most of her classmates.
Her rapid rise in height was attributed to a rare hormone condition.
By the time she reached 18, Ella was close to seven feet in height. When she stopped growing at age 22, she topped out at an astounding 8-foot, 4 inches.
Of course she was stared at and teased. “The girls of my own age shunned me,” Ewing would later say about her childhood in tiny Gorin, Missouri. “My tastes were the same as theirs; I loved dolls and scrap-books and it was as much fun for me to make mudpiles as it was for them.”
“When I called on my friends there were no chairs large enough for me to sit on,” she added, “and I was out of place apparently, everywhere.”
But for oddities like Ella, there were opportunities.
The circus came calling.
“I reckon you must mean Ella Ewing,” a local was quoted as saying when a museum agent from Chicago came to Gorin on a tip of a “wonderful giantess” in town. “She’s the biggest gal in these parts, and I calc’late she hain’t got her growth yit.”
The agent went to Ella’s home. A newspaper writer described the meeting this way:
“‘Was Miss Ewing in?’ [he asked]. Yes she was, and she soon entered the parlor, being compelled to stoop to get through the door. Her head almost grazed the ceiling and the agent looked upon the tallest human being he had ever seen.”
The agent soon “made known his errand.” Ella’s parents were reluctant at first. Ella was self-conscious about her height and hated the idea of people gawking at her. She and her family thought celebrity-hood clashed with their strong Christian beliefs too.
But money talks.
Ella was offered $1000 to spend four weeks as an exhibit at a Chicago museum. Another report claims she was offered $500 a week for forty weeks. Either way, it was an offer Ella and her parents couldn’t refuse. “If people are going to gawk,” a friend convinced, “make them pay.”
Ella instantly caught the attention of other museum mangers throughout the nation. “She was a giant in reality and none of the other living giants wanted to share a stage with her,” the Palmyra (Missouri) Spector reported. Ella was larger than the “famous Chinese Giant” who stood seven-feet eleven inches tall, and P.T. Barnum’s Colonel Ruoth Goshen who was seven-feet six inches “in his thickest soled boots.” Ella, at over eight feet tall, “readily looked over the heads of either of these two men,” the Spector explained.
After the museum stint, Ella was featured at Chicago’s 1893 Worlds Fair. From there she appeared in state fairs and other events near her home earning her the nickname ‘Missouri Giantess.” Eventually, P.T Barnum hired Ella for his traveling circus. Ella became the “Giant Giantess” for Barnum and billed as “A true giantess far exceeding in height all other giant’s that ever lived.” Typical of a Barnum “freak” show, he paired her with other human oddities like the Midget Man who was “only six-inches tall” and a “cyclopean young lady” weighing in at “over 300 pounds.
Ella towered above them all. “I am delighted with it and find it quite different from what I expected before I entered it,” she said about circus life. “I have always received the best treatment from all the people in the show, and enjoy traveling about and seeing the country.”
For six-months work , Ewing received $3,250 dollars, which made the days on the road more bearable and homecomings more special. Even the attention became commonplace and acceptable. “It was terribly embarrassing to me at first,” she explained referring to the constant gawking, ” but I have almost gotten used to it now.”
In 1897, after making a good living on the circuit, “the tallest lady on Earth” finally settled down. Travelling had become burdensome. “I couldn’t get into the berth of an ordinary sleeping car,” Ella told the St Louis Dispatch, “and had to travel day and night in an ordinary car. The rooms of a hotel have always been a torment for me.”
Ella returned to rural Missouri, bought a modest farm house near her parents and rebuilt it to her specifications: 12-foot ceilings, 6-feet tall windows, and over-sized furniture.
“I’m always glad to get back to our peaceful Missouri home,” she said. “Here everybody knows me and I’m not considered a “freak.”
At home, Ella’s stature continued to grow. She received constant attention from locals who came to marvel, not at her, but at a privilege only the “Giantess” could afford: a telephone.
She never married claiming her size prevented her from finding true love. “I have never given matrimony a serious thought,” she exclaimed in 1899, “and I have no doubt that I shall live and die an old maid.”
Ella died of tuberculous in 1913 at the age of 40.