Her dress flows to the ground, its intricate white lace design drawing your eyes in. There is a hint of a smile on her face as she rests it on her hand, looking directly at the camera. A distinctive boa feather juts out from her hair. Who is this woman? There she is in another photo. Here she stands next to another woman, she looks regal, unique, gentle, strong, and ultimately memorable. This woman is Ella Williams or as she is better known by her stage name MME Abomah, who in the 1800s was considered the tallest woman in the world. MME Abomah’s story is often forgotten in the history pages, but in the 1800s MME Abomah’s name was known far and wide.
MME Abomah was born Ella Grigsby in South Carolina in 1865 roughly ten months after the 13th amendment to the US constitution had been ratified. As a teenager, she worked for Elihu and Harriet Williams, whose last name she decided to take on, shedding the name Grigsby who had been her parents’ slave owners. According to the pamphlet she used to give out at her shows, Abomah’s family were of normal height, and she had only started to grow once she reached the age of 14. Abomah had malaria and got severely sick and weak, doctors did not expect her to live long as she had gotten so frail, however, within 6 weeks she had grown exponentially and was well on the path to recovery. The height listed in her pamphlet states that she was 7 feet 8 inches. Her extreme height made her stand out and she was repeatedly contacted by several circuses and promoters to tour as a giantess but she declined for a while. Then while she was working as a cook in South Carolina she agreed to be hired by Frank C.Bostock.
Once Abomah was hired, Bostock created a stage name and persona for her. In order to draw some mystique around her, Bostock came up with the stage name Abomah for her because it comes from the name Abomey, the capital of the Kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin). Bostock weaved this tale of how Abomah was part of the all-female bodyguards of the King of Dahomey and was portrayed as a warrior woman. Bostock knew that Abomah was very unlikely to be successful in the United States because of the level of racism and thought that there is more opportunity for her abroad. Bostock hired Abomah to do a tour of the British Isles.
MME Abomah was extremely popular abroad. According to her pamphlet, she appeared in 1900 in Liverpool with Reynold’s Waxworks and Exhibition, at the Alhambra, Blackpool in 1901-1902, 1904-1908 touring New Zealand, and 1909 in South America just to name a few. Wherever she went papers wrote about her poise and dignity. A newspaper clip dated 1905 from New Zealand wrote, “The Lady stands 7ft 6in high and weighs 18t, but notwithstanding her somewhat stupendous proportions, is free from any awkwardness in movement or gesture. She bears the greatness that has been thrust upon her gracefully and modestly and comports herself as if quite unconscious that she is not as other women.” A huge part of her mystique was the way she dressed. Abomah often wore expensive and intricate dresses paired with a hat that had feathers. Her brand was one of royalty, and this was very popular. It was also reported in New Zealand newspapers that Abomah managed her own small touring company called, The Abomah Company of Entertainers, however, not much else is known about the touring company. Abomah would also perform at her shows, delighting the crowds with her singing.
Abomah continued to tour for a while. She had been touring in the United Kingdom and returned to the United States in March of 1915, narrowly avoiding the London bombings by German Zeppelins in April.
Once she returned to the United States, Abomah worked at Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey where she worked until dropping off the scene. The official date and year of her death are not known, however, it is known that she died destitute. The woman that had drawn mass audiences and been the center of several stories in newspapers sadly died impoverished. Her name and story had largely been forgotten, but in recent years her story has been resurfacing.
So today we remember Ella Williams also known as MME Abomah who enchanted audiences far and wide with her height, grace, and uniqueness.
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