I’m pleased with how far our civilization has progressed in many ways in 2022. While it’s true that some things were better in the past, looking just a few centuries back reveals aspects of daily life that should have stayed in the past.
“Freak Shows” were popular attractions in the 19th century, considered a staple of American society. They were essentially mobile circuses presenting “strange” individuals like bearded women and Siamese twins. Mary Ann Bevan, one of these “strange” individuals, was dubbed the “Ugliest Woman in the World,” and her fascinating life story and tragic end illustrate why we should never forget her. People of different ethnicities or with various physical abilities have always fascinated others, but publicly exhibiting them for profit is ethically wrong, regardless of the time.
In the 19th century, people gathered to see individuals with deformities; today, it’s unimaginable. “Freak Shows” were highly popular from the 1840s to the 1940s, and exploiting these individuals for profit was not considered ethically immoral. Hence, it might not be too surprising that Mary Ann Bevan’s story begins during this particular time.
Mary Ann was born Mary Ann Webster on December 20, 1874, in Plaistow, East London, UK, as one of eight children in a working-class household. While her brothers got jobs to support the family, Mary Ann, an attractive brunette, pursued medical studies and began working as a nurse in 1894, setting the stage for a promising future. She married Thomas Bevan in 1902, and they had four children. However, Thomas suffered a stroke and died after 14 years of marriage, leaving Mary Ann alone with their children.
Unfortunately, Mary Ann faced other challenges. Shortly after marrying Thomas, she began experiencing physical problems that worsened over the years. Acromegaly, an unknown disease at the time, affected her facial features, broadening and masculinizing them as she battled the illness.
Mary Ann’s struggles with acromegaly, a disease characterized by excessive growth hormone production, transformed her appearance significantly. While the disease typically manifests after puberty, Mary Ann’s condition emerged later in life, affecting her facial features. Her facial characteristics became wider and more masculine as she fought the disease.
Unlike the present understanding of the disease, Mary Ann had little medical guidance on how to cope. Today, acromegaly affects six in 100,000 people, and with early detection and proper care, patients can lead normal lives. Unfortunately, Mary Ann did not benefit from such medical advancements.
Mary Ann’s appearance changed dramatically, leading to challenges in finding employment. Following Thomas’s death, she struggled to support her children, facing rejection in many job applications due to her altered appearance. One day, she came across a newspaper advertisement that would change her life forever.
Claude Bartram, an agent for Barnum and Bailey, an American circus, placed the advertisement. Mary Ann had no choice but to respond, given her accumulating debts and obligations. She did it not to become famous or wealthy but to provide for her beloved children. Motherhood was Mary Ann’s top priority.
Bartram contacted Mary Ann after she submitted a photo of herself. Later, the public became familiar with her images. Bartram saw more than just a frightening image of a giant woman; he noticed unnoticed elements in Mary Ann’s posture and facial expressions.
Mary Ann’s story made headlines in New York as she arrived in 1920, already known as the “Ugliest Woman in the World.” She became a sensation at Coney Island Circus, surpassing her circus colleagues and becoming the main attraction. However, her time in New York was challenging. She was forced to dress more masculinely to appear less appealing and feminine. Mary Ann endured jokes and remarks that undoubtedly diminished her self-esteem.
Despite the hardships, Mary Ann earned nearly $590,000 during her time in the circus, offering her financial stability. With the money, she sent her four children to an English boarding school. The greatest fear for any mother is undoubtedly leaving her children on another continent, but Mary Ann was forced to do so, ultimately doing everything to secure a better future for them.
Mary Ann, sacrificing herself, embodied true beauty by showing what it looks like to sacrifice everything for the ones you love. In 1925, she returned to France for an exhibition but spent the rest of her life in New York, working at Coney Island Dreamland Show.
Mary Ann’s story demonstrates an unwavering determination to care for her family. She had to work as there were no benefits like today. She was a mother who genuinely loved her children, putting others before herself.