A portrait and etching of Barbara Urslerin, a German 'freak show' star
Barbara Urslerin's head to toe covering of soft blonde hair saw her gain fame across the whole of Europe during the 1660s, but the mastermind behind her success was her husband - who let men examine her genitals for extra money.
Freakshows were also a popular attraction in medieval times, with disabled children sold to circuses at birth, or ‘exhibited’ from a very young age once their condition had become apparent.
Barbara Urslerin was born in the German village of Kempten in February 1629, and was toured around Europe by her parents. She ‘performed’ in Copenhagen, Belgium and in London.
She suffered from hypertrichosis, but at the time one doctor cruelly argued that she was the product of a brutal interspecies rape.
Danish doctor Holger Jacobsen wrote in 1668: “The Hairy Maid must be a loathsome result of a copulation between a woman and an ape.”
That disgusting description is the last known mention of Barbara, who went on to marry and have a ‘normal’ child, but she features in a lot of different texts written by authors from across Europe.
Barbara's special talent was playing the harpsichord
Author John Evelyn described her appearance after seeing her in London in 1657. It was his second time, after seeing her when she was 8, but this was likely to have been outside of the UK.
He wrote: “I saw the hairy maid, her very eyebrows were combed upward, and all her forehead as thick and even as grows on any woman’s head, neatly dressed; There come also two locks very long out of each ear: she had also a most prolix beard, and mustachios, with long locks of hair growing on the very middle of her nose, exactly like an Island Dog.
This portrait, part of the Wellcome Collection, shows her wearing fine clothes
“The rest of her body not so hairy, yet exceedingly long in comparison, Arms, neck, breast and back; the colour of light Browne, & fine as well as dressed flax… and for the rest very well shaped, played well on the harpsichord, etc.”
Most of the ‘attractions’ were not just there to be gawped at, they would show off another talent, too. For instance, Prince Randian, a limbless man known as The Human Worm, would roll a cigarette and light it with a match as part of his act.
However, there was a sicker type of interest in these ‘medical marvels’. In 1646, Frenchman Elie Brankenhoffer saw her at an attraction fair in Paris. Also on show were a “monstrous dolphin, a lioness, a five-footed cow, a man without hands and a camel”.
A less flattering drawing of Barbara shows the long blonde curls that were said to grow from each of her ears
He paid an additional fee to see her undress, and noted that her back was “covered with thick, soft hair like a coat of fur. Her breasts, he noted, approvingly, were round and white and less hairy than the rest of the skin. M. Brackenhoffer ended his account by stating that he had ascertained that she was a true woman and not a hermaphrodite.”
The lurid - almost perverse - interest shown in medical anomalies of this time put disabled and different people like Barbara at risk of being exploited. When ‘four-legged woman’ Myrtle Corbin died, her family had her coffin encased in cement so that grave robbers couldn’t dig her up to sell to doctors fascinated by her skeletal structure.
But it wasn’t only doctors who didn’t have Barbara’s best interests in mind. Her own husband saw her as a money-making venture.
In 1655, she first came to London with her husband Johann Michael van Beck, who had “married this frightful creature only to make money by putting her on show”.
Another etching of Barbara shows the thick fur she had all over her body, which was described "like a soft coat"
In 1660, Van Beck took his wife on a tour of France. Historical documents reveal that he applied to the local bailiff for permission to exhibit a “strange prodigy of nature. A woman with a hairy, bearded face and moustachio.”
He didn’t mention that she was his wife, and as well as being allowed to go ahead with his exhibition, was given the go ahead for her to drum up business by standing in the middle of the marketplace banging a tambourine.
Another portrait of Barbara shows her again in a dignified pose, despite what her husband allowed to happen to her
Some historians have also questioned if Van Beck pimped his wife out to interested parties for a fee. At the time, if you were paying extra to ‘examine’ something to see if it was a genuine anomaly, you were given a green light to probe, pull and pinch.
Jacobsen, the Danish doctor who questioned Barbara’s genetic heritage even wrote in his account that he had “thoroughly examined her genitals to see if they had any similarity with those of a monkey”.