I am pleased with the strides our civilization has made in 2022, recognizing that progress comes in various forms. While acknowledging that certain aspects of the past were better, it’s crucial to highlight that some elements of bygone eras belong precisely where they are, in the past.
In the 19th century, “freak shows” were a popular attraction, considered a regular part of American society. These mobile circuses showcased individuals deemed “odd”, such as bearded women and Siamese twins. Mary Ann Bevan, labeled the “Ugliest Woman in the World”, emerged as one of these attractions, and her poignant life story emphasizes the need to remember and learn from such historical missteps.
While human curiosity about individuals with different ethnicities or physical abilities has existed throughout history, exploiting them for profit is ethically wrong, regardless of the time period. In the 19th century, audiences flocked to witness people with deformities in “freak shows”, an unsettling trend that persisted from the 1840s to the 1940s without widespread moral objection.
Mary Ann Bevan’s story unfolded in this challenging period. Born as Mary Ann Webster on December 20, 1874, in Plaistow, East London, she grew up in a working-class household, one of eight children. Unlike her brothers, who found employment when they reached adulthood, Mary Ann pursued education, graduating from medical school and beginning her career as a nurse in 1894.
Her life took a positive turn when she married Thomas Bevan in 1902, and together, they experienced the joys of raising four children. However, tragedy struck after 14 years of marriage when Thomas suffered a stroke and passed away. Left alone with her children, Mary Ann faced additional challenges as she grappled with a rare condition known as acromegaly, which affected her physical appearance.
Acromegaly, characterized by the overproduction of growth hormone, leads to enlarged body tissues and bones. Mary Ann exhibited symptoms around the age of 32, and with limited knowledge about the condition at the time, she struggled to find help. Unlike the typical manifestation of acromegaly after puberty, Mary Ann’s ailment affected her face, altering her features.
Despite her hardships, Mary Ann initially found solace in her family and received support from her husband. However, after Thomas’s death, the disease’s impact worsened, rendering her unemployable due to her changed appearance. Desperate to provide for her children, Mary Ann responded to a newspaper advertisement seeking the “Ugliest woman” for a circus.
Claude Bartram, an agent for Barnum and Bailey, selected Mary Ann based on her photograph and offered her a contract that included a weekly salary, travel expenses, and proceeds from picture postcard sales. Mary Ann’s journey to America in 1920 marked the beginning of her fame as “The Ugliest Woman on Earth”, with appearances at the Coney Island Circus.
Despite objections to the morality of using individuals with physical differences for entertainment, Mary Ann became a sensation, earning significant income. The financial success allowed her to provide her children with education in England, fulfilling her commitment as a devoted mother. Mary Ann’s resilience and sacrifice epitomize true beauty and maternal love.
Returning to France in 1925 for an exhibition, Mary Ann spent the remainder of her life in New York, working at the Coney Island Dreamland Show. She passed away in 1933 from natural causes at the age of 59, fulfilling her dying wish to be buried in her native country, laid to rest at South London’s Ladywell and Brockley Cemetery.
Mary Ann Bevan’s story is a testament to her unwavering determination to support her family. In a time without modern benefits, she worked tirelessly, embodying the selflessness of a mother who prioritizes her children above all. May Mary Ann rest in peace, a deserving tribute to a woman whose life exemplified sacrifice and maternal love.