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Series Feature #1 – Life In The Circus From Yesterday to Today! – The Bearded Women

Step right up, Step right up! The show is about to begin as we explore the world of the circus and those who made and make a magical place to visit.  The tradition of the circus has a long incredible history as we learned from last week, but that history lesson is not over today as I will make it point of how history and even film has influenced the circus.

John Ricketts And The Continuation of the Modern Circus

Leaving off from the time of Philip Astley and the start of the modern circus it would only be a matter of time when the circus reach America. By the late 18th century the circus had spread throughout Europe and had gained a small foothold in the United States. In 1793 John Bill Ricketts, a Scottish ride and former student of Hughes presented exhibitions in Philadelphia and New York City consisting of trick riding, rope walkers, tumblers pantomimes and a clown. Ricketts was the first in the United States to offer such a variety for an evenings entertainment, as he is credited with the country’s introduction to the circus.

newspaper, 12/13/11, 10:39 AM, 8C, 2126×4150 (2073+2565), 100%, Custom, 1/80 s, R48.5, G32.1, B53.8

The main feature of his show was his own equestrian act, which he leaped from his galloping horse over a ribbon suspended 12 feet in the air and then landed back in the saddle. Animals would not become commonplace in American circuses for several years.  Within a few years Ricketts would hire John Durang, who is believed to have been the first American-born circus clown.

In the tradition of Astley’s and other European circuses Rickett’s productions featured a pantomime-or, as it came to be know as the “spectacular” or “spec” in circus jargon. A spec is considered a dramatized famous battles, but they also evolved to re-create historical incidents, ancient myths and bible stories. A times they consisted of grand pageants in which the entire circus would dress in glittering costumes, paraded through the arena.

Unfortunately, Ricketts endeavor, like Astley’s before him fell victim to fire, the most notorious enemy of circuses. Shortly after losing his New York circus to fire, Ricketts returned to Philidephia, where in 1799 yet another one of his circuses burned to the ground. After a few unsuccessful attempts at rebuilding his career, the discouraged and near bankrupt Ricketts set sail for England, hoping to reestablish himself in that country. The ship on which he sailed, however perished at sea on an unknown date in 1800, claiming the lives of all aboard.

The circus begging with success but ending with tragedy would not die even in today, as there would be other great entrepreneurs who would continue the tradition.  I have found there are many different areas of the circus that can be focused on individually from the animals to the shows and the people. I find people to be the most important especially the circus acts.  Take a trip with me as we examine those individuals along with the history as we will examine the first of many circus acts considered to be freaks at the time. Today we would never want to call someone a freak as they are human beings that deserve respect and admiration for what they probably had to go through at the time. When researching certain individuals I will make my best attempt to highlight circus act individuals that are well known and unknown.

In really trying to research certain people and acts there may be little or no information on the action person but really will do my best to go with what is available. I think it’s appropriate to highlight one of the most famous of circus acts that has been displayed countless times in films and alike with the “Bearded Women”.

The Bearded Woman in Popular Culture

Popular culture has always seemed to use the bearded women especially in such films like the “The Greatest Showman”  and “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” among other references.  We must remember that the bearded lady was a real person but was thought of as a freak of nature that could easily be examined as a medical condition. I would say there probably exist bearded ladies today, most women get treatment or shave but there are those who can’t. I will touch on the medical condition a little bit as it does bear significance to why a women has  beard. But if you think about it for a women to grow a beard and especially in the early 19th and 20th century when the condition may not have been known those women were created as outcasts away from society.

Such as in the case of “The Greatest Showman” P.T. Barnum played by Hugh Jackman searched and found his bearded lady in a laundry house hidden away.

The Condition of Hirsutism

When the bearded lady appeared as you could imagine she was mocked and ridiculed for her looks not caring if she had a medical condition in fact she did most likely called Hirsutism which is excessive body hair in men and women on parts of the body where hair is normally absent or minimal. It may refer to a “male” pattern of hair growth that may be a sign of a more serious medical condition.

V0007287 Barbara Vanbeck, a very hairy woman. Stipple engraving by G. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Barbara Vanbeck, a very hairy woman. Stipple engraving by G. Scott. after: G ScottPublished: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

As in the case of the bearded lady hirsutism can lead to avoidance of social situations and to symptoms of anxiety and depression.  Medically speaking this condition is an underlying endocrine imbalance, which may be adrenal, ovarian or central, which can be caused by increased levels of androgen hormones. Treatments today may include birth control pills that contain estrogen and progestin, antiandrogens or insulin sensitizers.

The Pioneers of Bearded Woman

There have been many notable women with beards dating back to the 12th century and even today. But to narrow our focus we will stick with 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.  Notable exceptions were the famous bearded ladies of the circus sideshows of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as Barnum’s Josephine Cloufullia and Ringling Bros Jane Barnell, whose anomalies were celebrated.

19th Century Bearded Women

The most well known bearded ladies to date in the 19th century included Julia Pastrana, Krao Farini, Annie Jones and Alice Elizabeth Doherty.

Julia Pastrana (1834-1860)

was a performer and singer during the 19th century who had hypertrichosis. Pastrana, an indigenous women from Mexico, born in 1834, somewhere in the state of Sinaloa. Born with a genetic condition with her face and body covered in straight black hair. Her ears and nose were unusually large and her teeth irregular.

Multiple versions of Pastrana’s early life exist. Literature produced by whose who managed the freak shows she appeared described her as belonging to Native American tribe call “Root Diggers” whose members were similar to apes and lived in caves.  In this version is said that a women identified as Mrs. Espinosa was kidnapped by the tribe and held in a cave and took Pastrana with her when she was able to escape.

In another version , Pastrana was a local girl whom they referred to as “Wolf woman” and in this version Pastrana lived with her mother until her mother passed away, after which her uncle sold her to the circus.

It is said that Francisco Sepulveda a customs official in Mazatlan purchased Pastrana and brought her to the United states. She performed under the management of J.W. Beach at first but in 1854 eloped with Theodore Lent, marrying him in Baltimore, Maryland. Lent then took over management and they toured throughout the U.S. and Europe. Pastrana was advertised as a hybrid between an animal and human working under the stage name “Baboon lady”, The Dog-faced women”, “The hairy woman”, “Ape-faced woman”, “The Ape woman”, the “Bear woman” and the “Nondescript” However during these times she illustrated her intelligence  and talent: Singing, dancing, and interacting with the audience.

Sadly during a tour in Moscow, Pastrana gave birth to a son, with features similar to her own. The child survived only three days and Pastrana died of complications five days later post birth.

After her death Lent sold her body and their son’s to Professor Sukolov of Moscow University who permanently preserved her body. Her body was taxidermically preserved. After the bodies were preserved by Sukolov, Lent re-purchased them from him and began exhibiting them throughout Europe. Lent later found another women with similar features, married her , changed her name from Marie Bartel to Zenora Pastrana, becoming wealthy from her exhibition.

Krao Farini (1876-1926)

An American sideshow performer who was born with hypertrichosis as like Pastrana touring in North America and Europe adopted by Guillermo Antonio Farini.

Born in Laos and described as being part primitive tribe of humans called Kraos-Monink, all of whom were covered in hair and lived in trees. It is claimed in 1861 Krao and her parents were captured during an expedition conducted by the explorer Carl Bock to what is now northern Thailand and Laos.

During this time the Siamese had to be bribed by Bock and Dr. George Shelly an anthropologist into capturing them because of their belief that it was bad luck to kill or capture a Kraos-monink. Krao’s mother was detained in Bangkok and her father died of Cholera.

They were said to lack the knowledge of fire and survived on fruits, fish and nuts. Her name was said to mean “ape” in Siamese. She was also described as having a number of anatomically unusual features in addition to her body hair including an extra thoracic vertebra, an extra pair of ribs, cheek pouches, hypermobility of her joints and lacking cartilage of her ears and nose.

Another early account of Krao’s orgins was given by Dr. George G. Shelly claiming in 1874 Carl Bock had been traveling in Burma on behalf of Guillermo Antonio Farini also known as the Great Farini a well known Canadian funambulist, entertainment promoter and inventor.

At this time was in search of unusually tall people, but soon met the court of the King of Burma who he encountered the grandchildren of a hairy couple that had been previously encountered by European explorers. Bock uncovered that they had been gifts to the court from the king of Laos offering $100,000 for them but was denied. In 1882, Dr. Shelly and Bock went on several expeditions in search of hair people.

Krao, Shelly and Brock arrived in London in October 1882, by 1883 Krao was being exhibited in Europe as an example of a missing link between humanity and apes. There she learned German and some English. During that time, she was exhibited by Guillermo Antonio Farini at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster.  She was given the surname Farini at some point after her capture by sideshow promoter Guillermo Farini when he adapted her. When arriving in November of 1984, she was said to be eight or nine years old. 

Spending several decades exhibiting herself, living the last few years of her life in Brooklyn. When out in public but not on display she wore a veil. She died from influenza on April 16, 1926 in Manhattan, being cremated to avoid her corpse from being gawked at.

Josephine Clofullia (1829-1875)

Born Josephine Boisdechene in Versoix, Switzerland born hairy and reputedly with a two inch beard at age of eight. At the age of fourteen she began to tour Europe, first accompanied by her father and an agent and then with her father alone. In Paris she met painter Fortune Clofullia and eventually married him. She is notorious for fashioning her beard to imitate that of Napolean III. In return, the ruler gave her a diamond.

Josephine gave birth to two children; the first, a daughter who was born in 1851, died in infancy. Her son Albert who was born the next year was a hirsute as his mother had been.

All four, Clofullia, her husband, son and father moved to the United States where they joined forces with P.T. Barnum. Barnum officially had her beard measured at 6 inches, gave Albert a new name “infant Esau” and took them to his American Museum.

Annie Jones (1865 – 1902)

An American bearded woman born in Virginia. Touring with P.T. Barnum as a circus attraction. Whether the cause of her condition was hirsutism or unrelated genetic condition that affected both men and women.  As an adult, Jones became the country’s top bearded lady and acted as the spokesperson for Barnum’s freaks, a word she tried to abolish from the business.

When Jones joined Barnum’s exhibition as a child of only nine months, Jones parents received a $150 a week salary. She was billed as a new “infant Esau”. By the age of five, she had a mustache and sideburns, beard and became known as the bearded girl.

Jones married Richard Elliot in 1881 but divorced in 1895 for her childhood sweetheart William Donovan who died leaving Jones a widow. In 1902, Jones died in Brooklyn of tuberculosis.

Alice Elizabeth Doherty (1887-1933)

Born in Minneapolis, United States having the condition hypertrichosis lanuginose. Born with approximately two-inch blonde hair all over her body with none of her relatives known to have the condition. She was exhibited by her parents as a sideshow attraction from as early as two years old.

By the time she was five years old, her hair grew to about 5 inches, eventually increasing to about 9 inches by the time she was a teenager. Having never been interested in entertainment, she continued to perform to support her family anxiously awaiting retirement.

Hypertrichosis has many different variations depending on the genetic variation while Doherty did have one major difference is that she had hair growth over her entire body and just concentrated in one place.

Doherty retired from entertainment business in 1915 and died of unknown causes in Dallas, Texas on June 13, 1933.

20th century Beard Ladies

The most well known bearded ladies to date in the 20th century included Clementine Delait, Jane Barnell and Jennifer Miller.

Clementine Delait (1865- 1939)

A French bearded lady who kept a café. Described as the most illustrious and celebrated bearded lady in France as the perfect example.

She was a hirsute from an early age, but shaved regularly. This changed in 1900 when she visited a carnival and saw a bearded women with an unimpressive stubble and boasted that she could grow a better beard herself. Betting 500 francs she could as this attracted many more customers to the Delaits café which they owned later changing the café name to “The Café of the Bearded Woman”

Soon selling photographs and postcards becoming something of a celebrity as she began to tour Europe, attracting great crowds in Paris and London.

When Delait’s husband passed away in 1928, she finally accepted invitations to travel abroad. She spent her remaining years enjoying a quiet life of leisure and died in 1939.

Jane Barnell (1871-1945)

An American bearded lady who worked in circus sideshows, dime museums and carnivals. Using various stage names including Princess Olga, Madame Olga and Lady Olga. In her only film role in Tod Browning’s cult classic Freaks, using the sideshow stage name Olga Roderick, she was billed as the “Bearded Lady”

Born in Wilmington, North Carolina to George Barnell, a Russian Jewish wagon maker and his wife. In 1875 Barnell’s mother sold the 4 year old Jane to the Great Orient Family Circus and Menagerie while her father was away on business in Baltimore. The Circus consisted of the Muslim Woman who worked as manager, two of her daughters who danced, three sons who juggled and were tight rope walkers. Jane toured the circus for several months around the south and then to Europe.

In Europe the circus toured with the German circus and fell ill with typhoid fever in Berlin. She was then placed in a charity hospital and later an orphanage. She was later found by her father by the time she was five. He had either tracked the circus from the Carolinas to Germany or the woman who ran the circus had the Berlin police contact the sheriff in Wilmington.

After the incident, Barnell was placed in the care of her grandmother who began to shave her in order to conceal her condition. Inspired to live a normal life she worked as a student nurse in an old city hospital when she turned 17, working there for about a year until an incident occurred realizing she would never live a normal life.

In spring 1892 she met a circus performer professor William Heckler who  talked her into stopping shaving and got her employment with John Robinson Circus. Trying several stage names  working for Robinson circus for 14 years.

Barnell toured for a time with a number of circuses, including Ringling Brothers circus in 1935 and later joined Hubert’s Museum in Times Square, New York City.

Dying on July 21, 1945 in Manhattan, her remains cremated by the New York and New Jersey Cremation Company.

Jennifer Miller (1961)

is an American Circus entertainer, writer and professor at Platt institute in Brooklyn, NY. Living with a beard most of her life.  Miller became involved in the performing arts and theater while in high school and was involved in the downtown dance scene in NY in the early 1980’s. In her career as a performing artist, which has spanned over 20 years.

She has performed with numerous choreographers and dancers, several circus companies and in the Coney Island Sideshow in addition to collaborating on theater works with Sarah Schulman.

Still active today teaching at numerous colleges and universities.

Bearded Woman Past and Present

Bearded woman and ladies have made major impacts in the world of entertainment finding that many of the have very similar stories and horrific upbringings but ultimately overcoming adversity.  What surprised me the most that many were married some multiple times. Although some may say well they are still human beings and yes you are correct. Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder and although I personally don’t know if I would marry the bearded woman, there was something incredible about these woman.

As film as portrayed them as being freaks, being laughed at and mocked it appears many of them had sense of humor and self-acceptance since they could not stop growing their beards.

I am reminded once again of the film “The Greatest Showman” as the bearded woman at first hid away from the world soon to accept herself for who she was and how unique she was especially with her talents.

The Sufferage of The Bearded Woman

Many of the bearded woman suffered with the condition of hypertrichosis and had varying degrees of the condition with some of their faces only covered in hair while others had their whole bodies covered. I could only imagine what they went through especially for those parents who couldn’t love their daughters and sold them to the circus or used them as props to make money.  Its fascinating to see that although this condition still exists there are some cures in a way to stop the hair growth as mentioned earlier.

There are also other examples that this condition relates to in men as many of the men were reference as “Dog Boys” but I am sure that men were not as treated as poorly as women although not much worse as they were outcasts for their looks as well.

Their Stories Matter

Looking at each of these unique stories and pictures I can’t help to feel like these women suffered in their own right not being able to fit in society and even by their own families. In today’s cultures beauty is idolized and if there are women like these today many probably suffer from great depression and anxiety, although there is a current example of the bearded woman named Harnaam Kaur which was not profiled here not because she is not valid but because I choose to stick with 19th and 20th century bearded women and how their stories in many ways share significance.

I highly encourage to dig deeper into these woman’s lives and get to know those woman who had such impact on the circus and continue to have great significance in popular culture.

My piece on the bearded woman would not be complete without one of the best representations of one in “The Greatest Showman” singing this is me.

19 thoughts on “Series Feature #1 – Life In The Circus From Yesterday to Today! – The Bearded Women”

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