The Tallest Woman in the World
Niagara truly did have one lady with “her head in the clouds,” namely, Mary Ellen Powers, who was born on June 6, 1868 and lived on Grand Street in Lockport. Mary Ellen grew to be known as “The World’s Tallest Lady,” and traveled with the Barnum & Bailey Circus and other purveyors of oddities.
Mary Ellen, nearly 2 feet tall at birth, was 5”-10” by age eight and 6’-7” by age thirteen. She finally stopped growing at age nineteen, topping out at seven feet tall. (That was astounding for a day and age when the median height was barely five feet!) She must have inherited her height from her father, Patrick Powers who was 6’-8”tall, because her mother was described as very short. All five of her brothers were tall, but only Mary Ellen surpassed seven feet.
By age sixteen, most people agreed that Mary Ellen’s height would lead her to a career in entertainment. The unusual and unordinary were viewed as objects of spectacle in those days. Any unusual physical trait would springboard the shortest, tallest and heaviest to a life with the traveling circus where spectators plopped down coins to see what was described as sideshow “freaks.” Even though the term makes us grimace today, late 19th century citizens were accustomed to this description. Children and adults, alike, eagerly awaited the return of the traveling circus each year with baited breath to catch a glimpse of some unfortunate soul who made their living by presenting their body for others’ amusement. In 21st century standards, we have a hard time accepting the situation as anything but pitiful. But in reality, many of the unusual performers were able to significantly improve their lot by banding together with the traveling shows. There they enjoyed the fellowship and camaraderie of kindred souls who faced similar obstacles. They also got to earn a good income, travel the world and see sights and sounds they never would have enjoyed otherwise.
Mary Ellen’s unusual height eventually led her to join the Barnum & Bailey Circus where she toured the world for seven years and was described as the sensation of Europe. Her show business promoters exaggerated her already tall demeanor by sending Mary Ellen skyward in high heel shoes and tall hats with feather plumes. Her circus career brought her great wealth and fame and her last public appearance was at the Hippodrome in New York City in 1909. Following her life under the big top, Miss Parker met a tall man, Maurice Stapleton, in her home town of Lockport. He, too, was described as a giant and it was a case of love at first sight for these two extremely tall individuals. Once married, the giant couple continued to live in Lockport on West Jackson Street. The average passerby who chanced to catch a glimpse of Mary Ellen on the street, would have probably chortled a little chuckle, to see for free, “The Tallest Lady in the World.”
Douglas Farley, Director
Ann Marie Linnabery
Erie Canal Discover Center
24 Church St.
Lockport NY 14094