• Emma

'The World's Ugliest Woman' Mary Ann Bevan made freak show sacrifice for her kids


mary ann bevan, freak show
Mary Ann Bevan made a huge sacrifice for her kids after becoming a young, sick, widow

Victorian freak show star Mary Ann Bevan toured the globe as the ‘the ugliest woman on Earth’ - but really she was ‘the world’s BEST mum’.


The London-born nurse suffered from acromegaly, a disorder that causes the body to create too much growth hormone - and after her husband died was left destitute trying to support their four kids.


Prior to the onset of the devastating condition, she was very pretty, and had a successful career working in some of the City’s hospitals.


The narrow-mindedness of the era regarding her oversized features left her unable to work - but little did she know that her medical misfortune would end up providing a very lucrative income.


Today, acromegaly is a condition which can be treated and controlled, in the 1900s there was no stopping the disorder from taking over and changing someone's appearance beyond all recognition.


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mary ann bevan young
Mary Ann as a younger woman, she had a successful job working as a nurse

Fearing that she and her brood were edging closer to the workhouse, Mary Ann saw a newspaper advert that would change her life.


“Wanted: Ugliest woman. Nothing repulsive, maimed or disfigured. Good pay guaranteed, and long engagement for successful applicant. Send recent photograph.”


It was placed by Claude Bartram, who was the European agent for the American circus, Barnum and Bailey.


He had just returned from Europe after a fruitless mission to find “new season freaks” to join the lucrative - but cruel - sideshow circuit.


This newspaper ad was his final attempt at recruiting some new ‘talent’ to be gawped and mocked across the UK and further afield.


Mary Ann sent in a recent photograph and immediately captured Bartram’s attention - he had found his new star.


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Mary Ann with her four kids, who she was utterly devoted to
Mary Ann with her four kids, who she was utterly devoted to

He later said: “She was not repulsive at all. She had the kind of face one usually finds in a giant, a powerful, masculine jaw, prominent cheek-bones, nose and forehead, but she was unblemished, healthy and strong.


“She told me she did not like the idea of placing herself on exhibition, she was shy and did not want to be separated from her children.


“I told her she would earn £10 per week for a year, travelling expenses and all the money from the sale of picture postcards of herself, so she could provide for the education of her children. She wavered but finally agreed.”


To start with Mary Ann toured Hampshire but she was so successful that she was offered a job by P.T Barnum, the circus maestro portrayed by Hugh Jackman in The Greatest Showman, and in 1920 made the sea voyage to the US from Southampton.


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mary ann bevan pt barnum
People's prejudices meant Mary Ann struggled to get a job and she was forced in to the circus

While in London people turned away from looking at her, in New York it was the total opposite.


Upon arrival she found herself on the cover of every newspaper in the city - but it must have hurt to see herself heralded as “The Ugliest Woman on Earth”.


The hype about the new British circus star didn’t die down, and she went on to draw huge crowds, overshadowing bearded ladies, conjoined twins, little people, giants and people with physical disabilities.

The Coney Island freak show, pictured in 1941
The Coney Island freak show, pictured in 1941

Leading neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing wrote a letter to Time magazine in 1927 to complain about the way it had made fun of the ugliness of his patient.


He wrote: “This unfortunate woman who sits in the sideshow of Ringling Brothers ‘between Fat Lady and Armless Wonder’ and ‘affects white lace hats, woollen mittens and high laced shoes’ has a story which is far from mirth-provoking.


“She, previously a vigorous and good looking young woman, has become the victim of a disease known as acromegaly . . . Being a physician, I do not like to feel that Time can be frivolous over the tragedies of disease.”


But regardless of the moral issues of mocking those less fortunate, people flocked to gawp at her in the flesh.


Mary Ann was made to wear clothes that enhanced her masculine physique and make her look as unattractive as possible, prompting gasps of horror from the paying crowds.

Mary Ann was a huge success on the sideshow circuit, making a fortune that she used to support her family
Mary Ann was a huge success on the sideshow circuit, making a fortune that she used to support her family

During the next two years she was ridiculed, insulted and humiliated - and earned £20,000, which is about £500,000 today.


The money was enough to put her four children in boarding school and although she missed them terribly she regularly wrote to them, and knowing that their futures were secure helped her power through the (well paid) humiliation.


Mary Ann achieved what she set out to do, earning a fortune which she used to give her children a better life.

Mary Ann poses in a photo sold as a circus souvenir
Mary Ann poses in a photo sold as a circus souvenir

She returned to Europe in 1925 to take part in an exhibition in Paris, but spent the remainder of her life at the Coney Island Dreamland Show.


It has been claimed that she developed a severe drinking habit during her final years, and lost a lot of her fortune to poor investments.


After she died in 1933 at the age of 59 her children fulfilled her dying wish to be buried in England, and she lies at rest at the Ladywell and Brockley Cemetery in South London.