Bearded Ladies in History

Updated on April 26, 2018
leahlefler profile image

In addition to working for a small biotechnology company, Leah enjoys writing about science, gardening, and travel.

A poster advertising "Julia Pastrana, the nondescript" at a show at the Regent Gallery in London, England.
A poster advertising "Julia Pastrana, the nondescript" at a show at the Regent Gallery in London, England. | Source

An Early Irish Account of a Royal Bearded Lady

One of the earliest accounts is in Topographia Hibernica, written by Gerald of Wales in 1188. This account of Ireland was written shortly after the Norman Invasion and was circulated widely during the middle ages as a source of information about the country. The text describes the wife of Duvenald, the king of Limerick. Gerald wrote she “had a woman with a beard down to her navel, and also, a crest like a colt of a year old, which reached from the top of her neck down her backbone, and was covered with hair. The woman, thus remarkable for two monstrous deformities, was, however, not an hermaphrodite, but in other respects had the parts of a woman; and she constantly attended the court, an object of ridicule as well as of wonder.”

Early records of a medieval Irish king's bearded wife exist in the Topographia Hibernica.
Early records of a medieval Irish king's bearded wife exist in the Topographia Hibernica. | Source

Wilgefortis and Saint Paula, Bearded Saints

Wilgefortis was the daughter of a Portuguese King and one of nine daughters. Promised in marriage to the king of Sicily, Wilgefortis prayed for aid and grew a beard and mustache. The marriage proposal withdrawn, her father was irate and crucified his daughter. The 14th century saint has a feast day on July 20.

St. Paula the Bearded is another Catholic Saint. A 19th century legend about Saint Paula states she was being chased by a young man with ill intentions, and she ran into a church and prayed before the cross. Her prayer was answered with an instantaneous growth of a beard and mustache, which caused the evil pursuer to run away.

Crucified for Defying Marriage by Growing a Beard

An oil painting from the early 19th century of Wilgefortis exists in the Augustiner Museum ub Rattenberg, Austria
An oil painting from the early 19th century of Wilgefortis exists in the Augustiner Museum ub Rattenberg, Austria | Source

Magdalena Ventura, Italian Art Subject

Painted by Jusepe de Ribera in 1631, “la mujer barbuda” developed a beard three years after the birth of her last son. A native of Abruzzi The painting shows Magdalena at the age of 52 with her husband and child. Painted with a very masculine countenance, the artwork features Magdalena breastfeeding her child. A stone tablet accompanies the painting and states her beard formed at the age of 37 years, and is a “wonder of nature.”

Jusepe de Ribera's Portrait of a Bearded Lady

Magdalena Ventura was painted in a way to make her appear more masculine than her husband. She developed facial hair after the birth of her last son.
Magdalena Ventura was painted in a way to make her appear more masculine than her husband. She developed facial hair after the birth of her last son. | Source

Helen Antonia as a Bearded Courtier

Born in 1550 in Liège, Belgium, Helen had a form of dwarfism and facial hair. She belonged to the court of the Holy Roman Empress Maria of Austria. While little is known about her life, an image exists of her in a carriage with other courtiers. She died in 1595 at the age of 45.

While little is known about her life, Helena Antonia traveled with the Royal Court and was a favorite of Margaret of Austria, the Queen of Spain
While little is known about her life, Helena Antonia traveled with the Royal Court and was a favorite of Margaret of Austria, the Queen of Spain | Source

Barbara van Beck, 17th Century Bearded Lady

Born in Bavaria in 1629, Barbara van Beck was covered in hair from birth. She likely had a form of congenital hypertrichosis, though the condition was not well understood at the time she lived. While she spent 30 years traveling with a European traveling show, she obtained financial security and an education. She was able to speak several languages, play the harpsichord, and married John van Beck of the Netherlands, who became her manager. The public speculated he married her only to show her publicly for financial reward. The couple had a son, who did not inherit the condition.

A 17th century portrait was made of Barbara, who wore an expensive gown decorated with red ribbons.

A mezzotint of Barbara van Beck, from the Wellcome Library of London, England.
A mezzotint of Barbara van Beck, from the Wellcome Library of London, England. | Source

Julia Pastrana, Subjugated as the "Ape Woman"

Born in 1834 in Western Mexico, Julia’s facial hair was evident at birth. Concerned her fate was due to interference from the supernatural naualli, Julia’s mother fled (or was cast out from) the local tribe and hid in a cave. The pair were located by local cow herders and Julia was taken to an orphanage to receive proper care. She was adopted by the state governor, who used her as a maid. She remained with the governor until she was 20 years old, and decided to return to her native tribe. On the journey back to the mountains in Western Mexico, she met with a showman in the USA. He convinced her to join his show, and she was subsequently called the “Ape Woman,” Baboon Lady,” and “Bear Woman.”

Subject to medical examinations by the physician Alexander B. Mott, she was declared to be a human-orangutan hybrid. Other physicians agreed with this assessment. Julia was exploited for her The showman claimed she was from the “root digger tribe,” which he claimed had sexual relationships with bears and were spiteful barbarians living in caves.

Julia was later shown in London at the Regent Gallery. Her showman, Theodore Lent, married her and put her on show throughout Europe. Julia became pregnant in 1859 and gave birth to a little boy in Moscow. The child inherited the condition and unfortunately died within hours of his birth. Julia followed him in death five days later.

Theodore Lent continued the exploitation of his wife by showing the embalmed bodies of his wife and son throughout Europe. He found another bearded lady named Zenora in Germany and married her, Zenora was labeled as Julia’s sister and was made to perform alongside the preserved corpses.

Julia’s body was shown after her husband’s death, as recently as the 1970’s in Norway. Thieves broke into the fairgrounds where her body was being shown, and stole the bodies of Julia and her son. The bodies would be later recovered by Norwegian law enforcement, having been dumped in a garbage bin.

After a concerted effort to have Julia’s body repatriated to Mexico, she was finally buried in Sinaloa de Leyva in 2013.

Julia Pastrana was quite possibly the most oppressed bearded lady of all time, as her husband continued to show her body after her death, and married another bearded lady to bring in crowds.
Julia Pastrana was quite possibly the most oppressed bearded lady of all time, as her husband continued to show her body after her death, and married another bearded lady to bring in crowds. | Source

Alice Elizabeth Doherty, the Bearded Child

Born in 1887 covered in fine unpigmented hair, Alice Doherty had a condition called hypertrichosis lanuginosa. A native of Minneapolis, Minnesota, the little girl toured with Professor Weller’s One-Man Band. This traveling show performed in front of storefronts throughout the Midwest. The hair on Alice’s face was five to nine inches long and she was known as the “Minnesota Woolly Girl.” She retired to Dallas, Texas in 1916 and died in 1933 at the age of 46.

Called the "Woolly Baby" of Minnesota, Alice performed with a show that toured the Midwest.
Called the "Woolly Baby" of Minnesota, Alice performed with a show that toured the Midwest. | Source

Annie Jones, Lifelong Circus Sideshow and Advocate

Touring with P.T. Barnum, Annie Jones was born in 1865 and was dubbed the “Infant Esau.” She began touring with the circus at the age of just nine months, and her parents received a payment of $150 per week over the course of three years. Annie married a sideshow talker named Richard Elliot at the age of 16. After 15 years of marriage, Annie married another sideshow talker named William Donovan. William and Annie left P.T. Barnum’s show and toured Europe on their own. Unfortunately, William died unexpectedly and Annie chose to rejoin Barnum’s circus. She worked for the circus for 36 years, and became an avid spokesperson against the use of the word “freaks” to describe performers in Barnum’s shows. She died at the age of 37 in 1902.

A poster advertising Annie Jones at a show in Brussels.
A poster advertising Annie Jones at a show in Brussels. | Source

Madame Josephine Clofullia, Hired by P.T. Barnum

A native of Geneva, Switzerland, Madame Josephine developed facial hair during childhood. She first started performing as a teenager, to help her family make ends meet during hard times. She traveled to the USA in 1853 in an attempt to work for P.T. Barnum as an attraction at his American Museum in New York City. She brought her husband and young son Albert with her. As with Annie Jones, Albert Clofullia was given the name “Infant Esau” and included in the show at the American Museum.

At the time, much of Barnum’s museum attendance hinged on the public’s need to verify his sideshows as legitimate or frauds – nearly all were frauds. In the case of Madame Josephine, however, the public was met with a refined young woman with a beard. In an attempt to drum up attendance, Barnum hired William Chaar to file a lawsuit claiming Josephine was a man claiming to be a bearded lady. This type of promotional stunt was a common marketing tactic of P.T. Barnum.

Once a judge ruled she was, indeed, a woman with a beard, the public viewing slowed to a crawl. She was viewed as a respectable woman who was married with children, and the public interest waned. Josephine Clofullia died in 1875.

Clofullia participated in a sideshow at P.T. Barnum's American Museum in New York City alongside her young son, who inherited her hypertrichosis.
Clofullia participated in a sideshow at P.T. Barnum's American Museum in New York City alongside her young son, who inherited her hypertrichosis. | Source

Krao Farini Exploited as "Darwin's Missing Link"

Krao was first brought to London, England in 1882, and by 1883 she was shown as an example of “Darwin’s Missing Link” between humans and apes. She lacked a nasal bridge and had cheek pouches. While the young girl did have an excess of hair (hypertrichosis) and lack a nasal bridge, she was entirely human and exploited throughout her life.

Various stories circulate around the discovery of a young woman named Krao, found in Burma. One account states an expedition led by anthropologist George Shelley and explorer Carl Brock captured Krao and her family from the jungles of northern Thailand. Another account maintains Krao was found by and expedition led by explorer Professor Farini in Siam, where the local village claimed Krao’s mother had been scared by a baboon prior to the end of her pregnancy.

While still under the care of Dr. George Shelley, Krao was shown at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster by Guillermo Antonio Farini. As Krao was only eight or nine years of age, Farini decided to adopt her and gave her his surname. He showed her throughout the British Isles and Europe, and brought her to Berlin for an education, where she learned four languages. She came to the United States and was shown as part of the Brandenburg Dime Museum in Philadelphia and the Ringling Bros., Barnum and Bailey Circus.

Krao died of influenza on April 19, 1926 in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. After spending a lifetime as an object of public scrutiny, Krao Farini requested to be cremated.

Krao was abducted and shown from a very young age. While the showmen who profited from her appearance claimed she was a "missing link," the child was completely human and simply had a genetic condition causing increased hair growth.
Krao was abducted and shown from a very young age. While the showmen who profited from her appearance claimed she was a "missing link," the child was completely human and simply had a genetic condition causing increased hair growth. | Source

One Cause of Female Facial Hair: Increased Androgen Levels

Facial hair may appear on women due to a number of genetic, congenital conditions or due to an acquired condition later in life. The most common cause is an excess of androgens, which are typically defined as “male sex hormones.” Androgens are produced in the adrenal glands, ovaries, and other tissues throughout the body. These hormones include testosterone, dihydrotestosterone (DHT), dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), DHEA-sulphate, and androstenedione. Aromatase is a catalyst that converts testosterone to estradiol and androstenedione into estrone.

Some women have an excess of androgens due to the following conditions:

  • Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). The cause of PCOS is unknown, but some factors are correlated with the disorder include insulin resistance, inflammation, and heredity. Individuals with Cytochrome P450 oxidoreductase deficiency are known to have PCOS. Low grade inflammation has been demonstrated to cause the ovaries to produce more androgens. This causes excess hair growth, acne, thinning hair, and potential heart disease
  • Congenital adrenal hyperplasia is an autosomal recessive genetic condition, which results in the overproduction of androgens, cortisol and aldosterone (causing salt wasting). Other medical complications are common.
  • Ovarian or adrenal tumors may secrete androgens, resulting in facial hair in females.

Types of Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia

Condition
Enzyme Deficiency
Genetic Mutation Location
Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia
21-hydroxylase deficiency
CYP21A2
Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia
3-beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase deficiency
HSD3B2
Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia
11-beta hydroxylase deficiency
CYP11B1
Antley-Bixler syndrome (severe form)
Cytochrome P450 oxidoreductase deficiency
POR
Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia
17-hydroxylase deficiency
CYP17A1
Congenital Lipoid adrenal hyperplasia
Inability to convert cholesterol to pregnenolone due to a transportation defect.
STAR
The various forms of congenital adrenal hyperplasia and the affected gene.

Hypertrichosis, A Condition Causing Excessive Hair Growth

Another cause for excessive facial hair is a genetic condition called hypertrichosis. This condition may be congenital or acquired, with different types of hair present for each genetic form. Hair types are referred to as:

  1. Lanugo, which lacks pigment or a core of air filled cells.
  2. Vellous, which have some pigment but lack a core of air filled cells.
  3. Terminal, which are pigmented, dense, and have a core of air filled cells (medullated).

Forms of Congenital Hypertrichosis

Condition
Hair Type
Hair Location
Genetic Location
Hypertrichosis lanuginosa
Unpigmented lanugo hair remains after birth.
The palms of the hands, soles of the feet, and mucous membranes are not affected.
Paracentric inversion mutation of the q22 band of chromosome 8. autosomal dominant
Generalized hypertrichosis
Pigmented hair growth.
Excessive facial and upper body hair, whereas women exhibit less severe asymmetrical hair distribution.[9] The palms, soles, and mucous membranes are not affected.
Xq24-27.1. dominant pattern of inheritance, X linked. Female = 50% chance to pass it to offspring. Male = 100% to daughters and 0% to sons.
Terminal hypertrichosis
Fully pigmented terminal hair that covers the entire body accompanied by gingival hyperplasia.
Hair covers the entire body.
Chromosome 17 MAP2K6
Circumscribed hypertrichosis
Thick vellus hair on upper extremities.
Thick vellus hair on upper extremities. Temporarily regresses during puberty.
Unknown
Localized hypertrichosis
Increased hair density and length.
Localized to one area on the body.
Unknown
Nevoid hypertrichosis
Isolated area of excessive terminal hair.
Localized to one small area of the body.
Unknown

Acquired Hypertrichosis

Not all cases of hypertrichosis are congenital. As with Magdalena Ventura, some cases of facial hair appear late in life. Causes of acquired hypertrichosis are sometimes a sign of malignancy and include:

  • Acquired hypertrichosis lanuginosa. Unpigmented hair growth occurs quickly over the face, torso, and armpits. The palms of the hands and the soles of the feet are not affected.
  • Acquired generalized hypertrichosis. Hair often grows on the cheeks, upper lip, and chin. In some cases, excess hair may also develop on the legs and forearms. Multiple hairs in the same follicle and an eyelash condition called trichiasis may coexist with this condition.
  • Acquired patterned hypertrichosis. Hair grows in a pattern formation on the body and may be a sign of internal malignancy.
  • Acquired localized hypertrichosis. This form is restricted to certain areas of the body and is often a result of trauma or irritation.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Leah Lefler

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      • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

        Leah Lefler 

        4 months ago from Western New York

        I agree, PaisleeGal. Humans can be horrible to other humans sometimes. I am hopeful that people will become more accepting and caring as we move forward into the future.

      • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

        Leah Lefler 

        4 months ago from Western New York

        The exploitation and profiteering from young women with facial hair in the 19th-early 20th century was horrendous. I thought the Catholic Saints were interesting, too, Robie. I had never thought of beards as a way to ward off unwanted advances by men until I researched the history!

      • profile image

        PaisleeGal - pat.materna@gmail.com 

        4 months ago

        Very interesting read! Sad how we treat others that are different from the norm.

      • Robie Benve profile image

        Robie Benve 

        4 months ago from Ohio

        Wow, what an informative and interesting read! It's the first time that I hear about the beard growing as answer to prayers. I knew, of course, about those girls that spent their lives being exploited in shows, with people laughing at them and treating them like animals. That always makes me said. Good to hear that most were able to get an education and learn several languages while traveling around. Thanks for all the scientific info about the causes of the beards, you did an amazing job researching this.

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