Bearded ladies have long been one of the most familiar of performers in travelling shows and circuses. Often it was the contrast between their femininity and their wild, masculine appearance – bearded face and hairy body – that attracted an audience.
Possibly the most notable bearded lady – certainly the one whose career has been examined in closest detail – is Julia Pastrana.
As explored by Sharon Messenger and Janet Browne, Julia’s title of “the nondescript” references notions of human and animal relations that were surfacing in light of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Note the small print in the poster: “…pronounced by most Eminent Naturalists and Physicians THE WONDER OF THE WORLD!”. (For more on the life – and afterlife – of Pastrana see a recent article in the New York Times).
Barbara Urslerin was arguably the Pastrana of the 17th century. Criss-crossing Europe on tour, Urslerin was a talented performer on the harpsichord, the gentleness of the sounds that emanated from her instrument contrasting with her wild appearance. Amongst many who saw her perform, John Evelyn recorded in his diary that she was “very well shaped, plaied well on the Harpsichord &c”.
By 1655 – when she first came to London – she was married to a Johann Michael Vanbeck, who it appears was also her manager and the person who was putting Barbara on show.
Anna Macallame, a contemporary of Urselin although not as well known, was “…borne in the Orknes of Scotland in the year of our Lord 1615 being presented to the Kings majesties sight Octobr 1662 …”.
The verse below her image emphasises the masculine/feminine contrast in her appearance:
Though my portraicture seems to bee
a man; my sex denyes me so;
nature hath still variety;
to make the world her wisdome know
Miss Annie Jones-Elliot was a performer whose biographical details mirror many other Freak Show performers from the 19th century. Annie was given the appellation the “Esau lady”, referencing the Biblical figure who was born “…fully completed, with hair of the head, beard…”. Such a name fits – I think – with the style of her beard, being as lengthy as other contemporary depictions of Biblical figures. Was this a deliberate choice?
The text below the image explains that “At her birth she possessed a good-sized moustache, much to the distress of her parents. But when two years old, she proved a god-send to her family – her beard had then fully developed, and she was exhibited in public with great success”.
She may have proved “a god-send” to her family, but how much say in things did Annie have? This question of power is central to scholars who have re-interpreted freak shows over the last two decades.
There’s definitely some styling going on with the hair of Madame Delait, “the bearded lady of Plombières”, photographed in 1923.
However, it’s the hair on her head that has had the attention; her fashionable cut – crimped and styled with all the care of an attendee at a Jay Gatsby party – contrasts with the ‘natural’ appearance of her beard. Has her facial hair been left unstyled to emphasise the mix of femininity and masculinity her bearded appearance gives off?
Either way, Mme Delait it seems had more control over her exhibition: she grew her beard as the result of a bet. She became a celebrity and travelled to exhibit herself in England and Ireland. Many photographs and picture postcards of her were published – and I wouldn’t be surprised if she received a cut of the proceeds…
Perhaps the most interesting representation of a bearded lady in our collection is this stipple engraving of Madamoiselle Lefort, who was exhibited at Spring Garden, near the Mall in 1819.
Rather than sporting a ‘wild’ beard she has a styled moustache with an accompanying tuft of hair under her lower lip (and if you look closely, the engraver has depicted stubble on her chin).
Madamoiselle Lefort predates Julia Pastrana and the other later ladies whose heavily bearded faces emphasised their difference. Leaving efforts to understand the beards of these ladies open to others, it does appear the Mme Lefort – whether by herself or at the hands of others – was a bearded lady who, through shaving, adopted the style of day in facial hair as well as in dress.
Bondeson, Jan. A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities : Ithaca: Cornell University Press; 1997.
Browne J and Messenger S. Victorian Spectacle: Julia Pastrana, the bearded and hairy female. Endeavour, 2003; 27:39–53.