In the past, there were certain aspects of daily life that belonged to a different time. One of these aspects was the existence of “freak shows,” popular attractions in the 19th century where people with unusual appearances were exhibited for entertainment purposes.
Mary Ann Bevan, known as the “Ugliest Woman in the World,” was one of these individuals. Her life story is both captivating and heartbreaking, highlighting the importance of never forgetting her.
The Era of Freak Shows
In the 19th century, “freak shows” were a regular part of American society, attracting large audiences. These mobile circuses showcased individuals with deformities or unique physical characteristics, such as bearded women and Siamese twins. While such exhibits were popular at the time, it is now universally recognized that exploiting people for profit in this manner is morally wrong, regardless of the historical context.
Mary Ann Bevan’s Early Life
Born on December 20, 1874, in Plaistow, East London, United Kingdom, Mary Ann Webster grew up in a working-class household with eight children, including six brothers. While her brothers found employment to support the family, Mary Ann pursued a different path. Despite societal expectations, she attended medical school and graduated as a nurse in 1894, embarking on a promising career in London.
Mary Ann married Thomas Bevan in 1902, experiencing love and happiness. The couple had four children together and enjoyed a contented life. However, tragedy struck when Thomas suffered a stroke and passed away after 14 years of marriage. Mary Ann was not only devastated by the loss of her husband but also faced additional challenges.
The Onset of Acromegaly
Shortly after marrying Thomas, Mary Ann began experiencing physical symptoms that worsened over time. At around the age of 32, she started showing signs of acromegaly, a rare hormonal disorder. In acromegaly, the body produces excessive growth hormones, resulting in enlarged body tissues and bones. This condition typically causes hands and feet to grow up to three times their normal size. Mary Ann’s ailment primarily affected her facial features, which grew broader and more masculine as the disease progressed.
Unfortunately, during Mary Ann’s time, acromegaly was not well understood, and medical treatments were lacking. The rarity of the condition meant that few doctors could offer help, leaving Mary Ann to face the physical and emotional toll alone.
Struggles and Exploitation
Following Thomas’ death, Mary Ann encountered difficulties supporting herself and her children. Her changed appearance due to acromegaly made it challenging to find employment. Employers were often apprehensive about hiring someone with such a noticeable deformity, fearing attention from customers. Mary Ann’s economic situation worsened, and she was desperate for a solution.
One day, she came across a newspaper advertisement that would forever alter her life. The ad sought the “ugliest woman” without repulsive or disfiguring features, offering good pay and a long engagement. Faced with mounting debts and obligations, Mary Ann responded to the ad, driven by her unwavering commitment to providing for her beloved children.
Claude Bartram, an agent for Barnum and Bailey, an American circus, placed the advertisement. When Mary Ann submitted her photo, Bartram saw beyond the terrifying image. He recognized unseen elements of strength and health in Mary Ann’s features and demeanor. Bartram understood Mary Ann’s reluctance to be exhibited and her desire to remain close to her children.
He offered her £10 per week for one year, covering travel expenses and allowing Mary Ann to earn money from the sale of picture postcards featuring her. This financial arrangement would provide for her children’s education, Mary Ann’s top priority.
Becoming a Sensation
Mary Ann’s journey took her to New York in 1920, where she quickly gained fame upon her arrival. Branded as “The Ugliest Woman on Earth,” she graced the front covers of numerous newspapers in the bustling city. Mary Ann’s fame continued to rise as she became a sensation at the Coney Island Circus, owned by showman Samuel Gumpertz of Missouri.
Competing with other individuals with physical abnormalities, such as bearded ladies and conjoined twins, Mary Ann stood out as the main attraction. However, objections were raised regarding the ethics of using circus performers as mere props. Notably, renowned neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing defended Mary Ann, highlighting the tragic nature of her condition.
Amidst Adversity, Financial Success
Despite the challenges she faced in New York, Mary Ann found one benefit worth enduring it all – financial prosperity. According to The Daily Star, she earned nearly $590,000 while working for the circus. Though she endured hardships and ridicule, Mary Ann’s wealth afforded her the opportunity to provide a bright future for her four children.
With the money she earned, Mary Ann sent her children to an English boarding school, despite the heartache of being separated from them. Her selflessness and sacrifice exemplified true beauty, demonstrating the lengths a mother would go to ensure the well-being of her loved ones.
The Legacy of Mary Ann Bevan
Mary Ann returned to France in 1925 to participate in an exhibition but spent the rest of her life in New York, continuing to work at the Coney Island Dreamland Show. She passed away from natural causes at the age of 59 in 1933. Carrying out her dying wish, her children laid her to rest in her native country. Mary Ann now rests at South London’s Ladywell and Brockley Cemetery.
In Remembrance of Mary Ann
Mary Ann’s story evokes admiration and respect. Her unwavering determination to provide for her family during a time devoid of social safety nets is truly commendable. She was a mother who loved her children selflessly, placing their needs before her own. May Mary Ann Bevan’s soul rest in peace, knowing that her sacrifices will forever be remembered.
Note: The images used in this article, while representative of Mary Ann Bevan and the era, are not of the actual individuals mentioned.