Abomah, the African Giantess

Abomah was an extremely tall woman who became something of an international celebrity, playing across Europe & Australia &, of course, the United States in the early 1900’s.  A good number of photos still exist of her towering elegantly over this person & that.  (use the arrows on either side of the photo to view additional pictures)

Several sources say her real name was Ella Grigsby; a newspaper advertisement also calls her “Ella Abomah.” Because Grigsby was the name of her parents’ slaveholder, she was reluctant to use it and sometimes went by the name of Ella Williams.   In nearly all sources, she’s known simply as “Abomah.”  Originally from Columbia, South Carolina, she didn’t particularly want to leave home to go on the road, but while working as a cook for a well-off family she was finally convinced in 1898 – probably through the waving of cash.  Showpeople who were genuine freaks, as they called themselves, could make an excellent wage, especially if they were congenial and could combine their oddity with talents.  Basically, if they could “rise above” their affliction and show this to an audience, they could play at the best circuses.

It’s said that Abomah and her manager took her act to Europe because audiences were more receptive there to a  very tall, strong, beautiful black woman.  As usual, the show publicity claimed she was African; an article in a British newspaper put out this bit of appealing fantasy:

She was formerly one of the attendants and body guard of the barbaric King of Dahomey, whose Amazonian warriors have been famous alike for their prowess and cruelty. Trained for her bloodthirsty calling from early childhood, she was inured to hardship and pain.  Her stature increasing out of proportion to her years, she became a particular favorite of the monarch, and led his army.  This extraordinary woman stands over eight feet in height, and can easily support the weight of a man on her outstretched hand.

It was also claimed that Abomah was one of the Dahomey Amazons.

While most newspapers praised her poise, intelligence, and “dusky beauty,” they also praised her singing voice.  Apparently, though, the show had to have its period touch of  racism: Abomah sang “The Honolulu Belle,” and was encored, and at the close of the entertaiment gave “All coons look alike to me” with equal success. (This was actually a very popular song in the time period, sung at both black and blackface minstrel shows.)

After touring in Europe & South America for more than fifteen years, she returned to the US and worked for Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey and at Coney Island.  Her career continued into the 1920’s, and then apparently she disappears from history.  I don’t know anything about her personal life – whether she was married, had lovers of either gender – I haven’t seen a reference to this.   I like to hope she made it back to South Carolina.