I’m happy about the progress our society made in 2022 in many ways. Although some things were better in the past, if we look back just a few centuries, we can find aspects of daily life that should stay in the past.
In the 19th century, people really liked “freak shows,” which were like traveling circuses showcasing unique individuals, such as bearded women and Siamese twins.
Mary Ann Bevan was one of these unique people, given the label of the “Ugliest Woman in the World.” Her interesting life story and sad ending remind us why it’s important to remember her.
People from various ethnicities or with different physical abilities have always intrigued others. However, displaying them publicly and making money from it is wrong, regardless of the time period.
In the 19th century, crowds would gather to see individuals with deformities, but today, that idea is considered unacceptable. “Freak shows” were widely liked from the 1840s to the 1940s, and exploiting people for profit wasn’t seen as morally wrong back then.
So, it might not be very surprising that Mary Ann Bevan’s story begins in this particular time. On December 20, 1874, in Plaistow, East London, the United Kingdom, Mary Ann Webster was born.
At that time, it was common for working-class families to have lots of kids. Mary Ann Webster, one of eight children with six brothers, grew up just like her siblings.
While her brothers got jobs to help the family when they grew up, Mary Ann had different opportunities. The beautiful brunette finished medical school and began working as a nurse in 1894. At that point in her life, she had a promising future ahead of her.
She was a pretty young lady with gentle features living in London, having a good education. London has become a prosperous city and a center of the modern world.
When Mary Ann married Thomas Bevan in 1902, she found love. They had four children and were very happy together. Unfortunately, the good times didn’t last forever. After 14 years together, Thomas had a stroke and passed away. Mary Ann was sad and found herself alone with her four kids.
Sadly, she faced more challenges. Shortly after marrying Thomas, she started having health issues that got worse over the years.
Mary Ann showed signs of acromegaly around the age of 32. When these symptoms first appeared, it must have been scary for her, and unfortunately, finding help for this rare condition wasn’t easy.
Back then, acromegaly was a mysterious sickness, and doctors didn’t know much about treating it. This illness involves the body making too much growth hormone, leading to enlarged body tissues and bones. It’s a terrible condition that often makes the hands and feet three times their normal size.
Unlike how the sickness usually shows up after puberty, Mary Ann Bevan’s condition appeared later in life and affected her face. Her features became broader and more masculine as she battled the disease.
Nowadays, we know more about the sickness. For example, we understand that about six out of every 100,000 people may be affected. If the issue is detected early, it can be treated. Today, if acromegaly patients get proper care from the beginning, their life expectancy can be the same as the general population.
Sadly, Mary Ann Bevan couldn’t benefit from these medical advancements. Instead, the condition had a major negative impact on her mental well-being and finances.
Life wasn’t too tough when she was married to Thomas. Mary Ann faced some criticism, but her husband and family supported her.
However, when Thomas died, things got harder, and Mary Ann struggled to care for her kids. The illness changed her appearance drastically, affecting her entire body. In just a few years, she went from being a lovely young mom to a saddened, almost unrecognizable widow.
People stopped hiring her because of how she looked different now. Many employers were frightened by Mary Ann’s enlarged face, and they didn’t want a woman with noticeable deformities working for them.
One day, Mary Ann saw a newspaper ad that changed her life. The ad said:
“Looking for: Unattractive woman. No extreme ugliness, injuries, or disfigurements. Good pay, and a long job for the right person. Send a recent photo.”
Claude Bartram, working for Barnum and Bailey, placed the ad. With mounting debts and obligations, Mary Ann had to respond to the ad.
It was about feeding her beloved children; fame or wealth wasn’t her goal. Mary Ann’s main focus was being a mother.
Bartram got in touch with Mary Ann after she sent her photo. Eventually, the public got familiar with her pictures.
While many saw a scary image of a large woman, Bartram observed more. Mary Ann’s demeanor and features held unnoticed qualities.
“She wasn’t repulsive at all. She had the face you often find in a giant – a strong, masculine jaw, prominent cheekbones, nose, and forehead, but she was unblemished, healthy, and robust. She told me she didn’t like the idea of being on display; she was shy and didn’t want to be apart from her children,” Bartram later clarified.
“I assured her she’d get £10 every week for a year, along with travel expenses and all the money from selling postcards featuring her, so she could support her children’s education.”
While others saw a frightening image of a giant woman, Bartram noticed more. Mary Ann’s face and personality had details that often went unnoticed.
When Mary Ann sailed across the Atlantic in 1920, she was already famous when she arrived in New York. Known as “The Ugliest Woman on Earth,” she appeared on the front page of almost every newspaper in New York City.
Afterward, Mary Ann became a big hit at the Coney Island Circus, owned by the successful showman Samuel Gumpertz from Missouri.
Competing with bearded ladies, conjoined twins, and others with different physical conditions, the newcomer from England surpassed her circus peers, and Mary Ann became the star attraction.
Yet, many people protested against the morality of using circus performers as attractions. Even in the 19th century, people strongly opposed exploiting the disabilities of freak show performers for profit. Renowned neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing stepped in and urged them to leave Mary Ann alone.
“This unfortunate woman, sitting in the sideshow of Ringling Brothers ‘between Fat Lady and Armless Wonder,’ and wearing ‘white lace hats, woollen mittens, and high-laced shoes,’ has a story that is anything but amusing.”
“Once a strong and attractive young woman, she has fallen victim to a disease called acromegaly,” he explained in a letter to Time magazine.
Despite this, everyday people kept attending the circus, and the directors made a lot of money. Unfortunately, Mary Ann faced many challenges in New York. She was forced to dress in a more masculine way to seem less attractive and feminine. Moreover, she had to endure jokes and comments that undoubtedly lowered her self-worth.
But there was one advantage that convinced her it was worth it. According to The Daily Star, Mary Ann earned nearly $590,000 working for the circus. Despite the challenges she faced, she became quite wealthy. She even sold picture postcards of herself with a forced smile.
With the money, Mary Ann could send her four kids to a boarding school in England. Leaving your children on another continent is a mother’s biggest fear, but Mary Ann had to do it and did everything possible to give her children a better future.
Mary Ann, who selflessly gave of herself, showed real beauty by sacrificing everything for her loved ones.
Although she went back to France for an exhibition in 1925, she spent the rest of her life in New York, working at the Coney Island Dreamland Show.
Mary Ann died of natural causes in 1933 at the age of 59. Her children fulfilled her final wish to be buried in her hometown, and she now rests in South London’s Ladywell and Brockley Cemetery.
I have deep respect for Mary Ann. Her story shows her strong determination to support her family, working without the benefits we have today. She was a loving mother who prioritized others over herself.
Rest in peace, Mary Ann. You deserve it.