Living Large: Missouri Giantess died a century ago in Scotland County, Mo.

This circus poster advertises Ella Ewing's days in the Barnum and Bailey Circus. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)
Posted: Jan. 10, 2013 9:04 am Updated: Jan. 24, 2013 11:15 am
A receipt from a pair of shoes made for Ella Ewing show she wore a size 24. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

MEMPHIS, Mo. -- Ella Ewing's size 24 boot hasn't met feet large enough to fit it in 100 years.

The Scotland County Historical Museum in Memphis keeps her oversized bed neatly made, but Missouri's tallest woman hasn't slept in it since she died a century ago. The two doors that once hung on Ewing's home stay propped up behind her iron headboard. Her elongated body swept in and out of the home through those heightened passageways. A yellowing undergarment runs down the full length of a standard door.

While Ewing passed away before her 41st birthday, her life had been about length. It's only fitting that the legend of the Missouri Giantess has lasted a century long.

Ewing died of tuberculosis and pneumonia at her home in Gorin, about 15 minutes southeast of Memphis, on Jan. 10, 1913. In her life, the giantess traveled with Barnum and Bailey Circus as the World's Tallest Woman. The Guinness Book of World Records has never listed her as the tallest woman, so many have debated her true height. A marker near her tombstone has listed her as 8-foot-4 1/2. declares her a whole foot shorter.

The museum has dedicated an entire room to Ewing's memory. The 14-room mansion, now known as the Downing House, once was known as the Park Hotel. The Ewing family took lodge in this hotel when possible, and Ella could pass through its tall doorways with ease. Museum volunteer Marcine Evans said Ewing often set her purse on the blue ledge above the parlor's doorway. Today, a life-size model of Ewing leans near that same edge. Numerous photos, newspaper clippings and possession offer hints to Ewing's height, but the towering figure shows more.

"When you tell them that she was 8-foot-4, they can't imagine her, but when they see that, they never forget that," Wilma June Kapfer, The Downing House curator, said.

Ewing maintained a normal growth rate in her early childhood. Just her final stature has been debated, so has her growth spurt. As she toppled six feet sometime before her teenage years, her family struggled to accommodate her speedy growth.

"They said she grew so fast that her mother couldn't keep up with her dresses," Evans said.

She eventually started a career with the P.T. Barnum and Bailey Circus, then later appeared with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and the Sells-Floto Circus, appearing in Quincy on June 16, 1897. She had a 17-year career as a circus performer.

Evans described Ewing as a shy woman who remained noticeably insecure by the size of her feet. Museum curator Wilma June Kapfer said children at the circus would try to look under her floor-length dress for a glimpse of the immense boots.

Gerth Funeral Service reported Fred Gerth of Wyaconda, Mo. embalmed Ewing's 260-pound body. He used her extra tall dining room chairs to create a makeshift table to embalm her on. When preparing for the burial, Gerth special ordered a casket and a vault. While alive, Ewing needed larger doorways, chairs and even a piano bench. In her death, that tradition continued to her final resting grounds. Gerth removed the lower half of the front wall of his hearse so that the casket would not extend farther than the loading end. Her vault was sealed with cement so vandals couldn't damage her body.

While the world remembers Ewing for her height, Scotland County recalls their overgrown lady as just that -- a lady.

Kapfer said when the museum opened, Ewing's childhood classmates would visit and recall her sense of normalcy.

"She was very polite. Very quiet. Very quiet for a person," Kapfer said. "She was such a kind and gentle person. She tried to appear normal."


A shoe worn by Ella Ewing, specially made for her by the Johansen Bros. Shoe Co. in St. Louis at no charge. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)