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.
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