Ella K. Ewing

Missouri Giantess: 1872-1913

 

Ella Ewing, the Missouri Giantess, was born on March 9, 1872. By the time she died on January 10, 1913, she had reached a height of 8 ft. 4 1/2 in., officially the world's tallest woman at that time.

During her lifetime, she gained for herself a nice living traveling with the Barnum and Bailey Circus. But years of touring had taken its toll, and on a cold and snowy January morning, she succumbed to tuberculosis and pneumonia.

Ben Ewing, Ella's father, contacted young Fred Gerth from Wyaconda. In those days of horse and buggies, it took Fred most of the morning to make the 8 mile trip from Wyaconda to Gorin. He took an apprentice with him to help with the embalming, which in those days was done in the home.

Frederick Gerth, Jr., recounted the story that his father told him, "He said that he got the call that Ella Ewing had died and that he had no idea how would be able to embalm her. She was so tall that there was no equipment available. He had a portable embalming table called a cooling board, which was at operating height. He went into her bedroom and opened up the folding table, which is about two foot wide and six feet six inches long, which was too short for her. He discovered that her specially made dining room chairs were so tall that the seat of the chairs was the same height as the table. He placed one at each end of the table and placed her body on it and was able to embalm her," Frederick Gerth recounted.

Ella Ewing had long wished that her body be cremated, so as she would not be made a spectacle by scientists or worse -- grave robbers. But Ben could not bear to do that to his beloved daughter. He was very insistent that Ella have a regular funeral, but that she also have a burial that would not be vulnerable to vandals. So Fred went about the task of embalming her 260 lb. body.


Fred suggested a cement-lined steel vault to permanently seal the remains, so as they could not be exhumed later. Ben Ewing then presented Fred with another request, find a casket large enough without crowding her. Fred had intended to just construct a pine box for her, but now it was a matter of pride to honor Mr. Ewing's wishes.

On the cold ride back to Wyaconda, Fred came up with an idea. He contacted the Embalming Burial Case Company in Burlington, Iowa, and they informed him that they had an oversized display vault for advertising purposes from the Baker Vault Co. The salesman said he would contact the foreman of the casket factory and see if they could make a casket to fit the vault.

After some time, the salesman called Fred Gerth back and said they could build the casket, but he would have to come to Burlington to give his authorization to it. Gerth then boarded the train for Burlington while the factory made the casket. When he arrived at Burlington, he checked it out to make sure it would work, and then he returned with the casket and vault to Wyaconda. He then loaded the casket and drove on to Gorin.

When Fred got to Gorin on the morning of January 12, 1913, he had not slept for two days. Upon arriving at the home, he and a group of Miss Ewing's friends and neighbors placed her body in the casket. They then prepared the room for visitation. A weary Fred Gerth, showered with praise and gratitude for the job he had performed, promised to return the next day for her ride to her funeral.

Before he could rest though, Gerth had another problem to deal with. The regular horse-driven hearse was not long enough to hold the large casket. But he did have a second hearse that had a seat high in the front. In order to make it work, Fred removed the lower half of the front wall of the hearse so that the casket could be slid all the way into the compartment and then under the driver's seat, so no part of it extended past the loading end. Thus, the rear doors could be closed and prevent the casket from falling out on the bumpy and muddy roads. This switching from the regular hearse to the second hearse, has over the years, led to many false claims as to whom actually has the real hearse used in the Ella Ewing funeral.

Ella Ewing's casket, with two representatives from the Embalming and Burial Case Company from Burlington, Iowa. One man is the salesman that called on Fred Gerth, the other the president of the company. They are holding a ruler which marks the length of the casket. In the top right hand corner, the sign reads," FRED GERTH, EMBALMER, WYACONDA, MO." Underneath is the steel burial vault.

So on the sunny morning of January 13, 1913, Fred Gerth arrived at the Ewing home to take Miss Ella to her final resting place. It required ten men to move the casket to the hearse. They stopped and placed the casket on a new church truck for just one minute so a photographer from the Gorin Argus newspaper could snap a picture.

"On the way to the church, (Fred Gerth) said that when they got a mile from the church, there were teams of horses and buggies all tied up to the fences on the side of the road," Frederick Gerth said. "When they got to the church, they found that neighbors had brought stoves and put them up in the church yard, keeping some of the large crowd warm."

After the service, Miss Ewing was buried in the cemetery adjoining the Harmony Grove Baptist Church. When they went to the cemetery and placed the casket in the vault, they poured cement on the vault before they covered it up so that no one could remove the body.

Ella Ewing is still remembered even today. George Baskett, while serving in the Missouri House of Representatives many years later, had a statue of her placed in the capital at Jefferson City. Around Northeast Missouri, there are still several reminders of her, including the lake that bears her name near Gorin. The Scotland County Historical Society, located in the Downing House in Memphis, has a large display of many of her personal effects. The Downing House used to be a hotel, which Ms. Ewing would stay in before returning home to Gorin after being on tour with the circus. One of her specially made shoes is a top attraction. This year a woven throw which features her image along with many other landmarks in the county is being sold to help raise money for the Historical Society.


 

The funeral of Ella Ewing presented a unique challenge to Fred Gerth, but the quality of service and high standards he set are still remembered. That devotion to professionalism and quality has been passed on through the generations, and it is still the cornerstone that Gerth Funeral Service operates on today

Ella Ewing's funeral leaving the specially designed house custom built for her size. Fred Gerth, in the fur hat and coat, is at the front left of the casket. Tragically, the house burned in 1965. Several attempts had been made to preserve it, but all failed.

 


 

Ella Ewing Obituary
The Memphis Democrat January 16, 1913

 

 

Miss Ella Ewing, the tallest woman in the world, died at her late home near Gorin, in this county Friday morning, January 10th, 1913. This announcement that reached Memphis at about eight o'clock Friday morning caused sadness to the hearts of those who knew the deceased best.

 

Miss Ewing was born in this county and had always made this her home. When she was but a young miss her growth to an unnatural size began to develop and before she reached the age of fourteen it was known that she would soon become easily the tallest woman in the neighborhood. 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.

 

But as she grew older this timidity became less, and after growing to womanhood her friends, induced her to go out with shows. She went reluctantly, but while she was going she became quite an attraction and got an independent living from her earnings.

 

With all this, she still maintained her quiet, modest demeanor, and was of such a loveable disposition as to draw friends to her. She earned sufficient funds to remove a debt from her father's farm and erected a house thereon that was built in such a manner that the doors were high enough that she could enter without having to stoop. Here it is proper to state that Miss Ewing was eight feet four inches tall. The bedstead on which she slept was made with special side rails to accommodate the owner, the frame of the piano was large and everything about the house built to correspond.

 

Miss Ewing, in her business, necessarily was called to all parts of the country. She made use of this extensive travel, being a close observer, and was able to converse fluently about what she had seen and heard in various localities. Travel made her acquainted with the affairs of men and served a good purpose in completing her education.

 

She was the daughter of Benjamin Ewing, her mother having died a few years ago, and there are no other children in the family. The home has always been a most hospitable home and the charming hostel, delighted to entertain company. Persons who have been fortunate enough to be her guests all are lavish in their praise of the hospitable treatment they received. The father of the deceased survives. Also a number of relatives and friends, who have the sympathy of all in their bereavement.

 

Miss Ewing's funeral was held at Harmony Grove Baptist Church in Knox County, Monday morning at 11:o'clock, after which the remains were interred in the cemetery nearby. Miss Ewing enjoyed a large circle of friends and there was a great crowd attended the funeral, thus attesting the high esteem in which she was held.

 

The funeral sermon was preached by Rev. F. M. Baker, pastor of the Baptist Church at Wyaconda.

 

The funeral was one of the largest ever held in this county and was attended by the numerous friends of the deceased from the four counties in Northeast Missouri.

 

The casket which contains her body, had to be especially made, and it was placed in a steel vault, embedded in concrete. It was Miss Ewing's wish that upon her death, her body should be cremated, but her father, who is greatly grieved over her death, could not consent to, and the remains were buried near Harmony Grove Church in the neighborhood where she grew to womanhood, and where she numbered her friends by the score.

 

Miss Ewing will be greatly missed in that neighborhood. Her home was a most hospitable one, and she enjoyed the company of her relatives and friends, and even those who went through curiosity were always treated with courtesy and respect. While Miss Ewing has traveled the continent from coast to coast, she was a lady of domestic taste, and always enjoyed the time she spent in her own home. She was a splendid conversationalist, and related in a most entertaining manner, stories of her travels.

 

While she grew to unnatural proportions, her life was not unlike that of other refined ladies. It was with reluctance that she ever consented to travel but once she did, she would never go without her mother or some lady companion of her own choosing. Her mother always accompanied her until her death, a few years ago, since which time, she had been accompanied by some lady relative or friend.

 


 

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