Last Updated on July 14, 2021 by MyGh.Online
When she found herself a widow with four kids, Mary Ann Bevan knew she would do whatever it took to support them – even joining a freak show as the “world’s ugliest woman”.
Born in December 1874, pictures of Mary Ann taken as a young woman show a pretty brunette with delicate features.
She was one of eight kids born into a poor family in Plaistow, east London, but that didn’t stop her from following her dreams to become a nurse.
Aged 29, she married Thomas Bevan and the couple went on to have four children, but Mary Ann’s appearance was drastically changing due to acromegaly, a disorder caused by the body producing too much growth hormone.
The cruel condition can cause a person’s hands and feet to become enlarged.
It also changes the shape of the face, with Mary Ann’s face rapidly becoming larger and more masculine. It is an incredibly painful condition, with both the bones and tissues increasing in size at a rapid rate.
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Today, acromegaly is a condition which can be treated and controlled, but in the Victorian era there was no stopping the disorder from taking over and changing someone’s appearance beyond all recognition.
Mary Ann’s appearance drew unkind comments in the street, but at least she was safe at home with her loving family who knew she was truly beautiful inside… until Thomas died 11 years after they wed.
Facing destitution, Mary Ann tried all she could to earn a living and keep a roof over their heads – but her appearance made her unemployable.
But then she saw a newspaper advert that would change her life.
It read: “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 despondent from Europe after his mission to find “new season freaks” to join the lucrative and cruel sideshow circuit had proved to be fruitless.
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 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 so made the voyage to the US by ship from Southampton in 1920.
Upon arrival she found herself on the cover of every newspaper in New York, who heralded her as “The Ugliest Woman on Earth”.
The hype about the new British circus star didn’t die down, and she went on to be the star of the show, overshadowing bearded ladies, conjoined twins, little people, giants and people with physical disabilities.
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 see her in the flesh. She 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.
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 and let the insults bounce off her.
Ultimately, she achieved what she set out to – earning a fortune which she used to give her children a better life. The insults were presumably worth the pain.
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.