Early in the 20th century, Mary Ann Bevan, a beautiful Englishwoman, was forced to perform in sideshows and circuses in order to support her family after she was diagnosed with acromegaly.
Mary Ann Bevan, who was born in the late 19th century on the outskirts of London, wasn't always referred to as being "ugly." In fact, when she was a young girl, she was even thought to be attractive.
That all changed when she developed a rare disfiguring disease well into adulthood and after becoming a mother multiple times. Bevan used her appearance to make a living despite the fact that after a short period of time her hands, feet, and features were completely altered.
This is the story of how Mary Ann Bevan became the Ugliest Woman in the World, one of the most tragic figures in the once-thriving sideshow business, to support herself and her family.
Earlier Years of Mary Ann Bevan
On December 20, 1874, Mary Ann Webster was born to a big family on the outskirts of London. She grew up exactly like her siblings, and in 1894 she earned her nursing license. In 1903, she married Thomas Bevan, a farmer from the county of Kent.
The marriage gave birth to two healthy sons and two healthy daughters, and the Bevans settled into a happy, fruitful life. Sadly, Thomas passed away unexpectedly in 1914, leaving Mary to care for four children on her tiny income. Soon after her husband passed away, she started to exhibit symptoms of acromegaly, a condition in which the pituitary glands produce too many growth hormones.
One of the more uncommon pituitary conditions, acromegaly, can now be treated if caught early enough. Bevan had no way to treat or prevent the condition, however, due to the limitations of early 20th-century medicine, and she soon noticed that her features had changed beyond recognition.
Mary Ann Bevan Deals With Acromegaly Head-On
Bevan's otherwise normal hands and feet grew out of all proportion, her forehead and lower jaw extended, and her nose grew noticeably bigger as a result of her condition. She turned to odd jobs to support her family because her changing appearance made it difficult for her to find and keep a job.
She was permanently altered by the rare condition. Years later, a former worker at the fairgrounds claimed that the farmer she was employed by was the one who told Bevan that "all [she was] fit for [was] the ugly woman competition."
Bevan took the farmer's advice to heart and entered the "Homeliest Woman" competition right away, easily defeating 250 other women to win the illustrious title. Since her doctor had assured her that her condition would only get worse, she decided to take advantage of the attention her victory had attracted from sideshow operators in order to support her children. She soon had consistent work performing at fairgrounds all over the British Isles as part of a traveling fair.
In 1920, Bevan responded to the "Wanted: Ugliest woman" advertisement in a London newspaper. Nothing hideous, mangled, or deformed. For the selected applicant, a good salary and a lengthy engagement are guaranteed. The ad had been placed by a British agent for Barnum and Bailey's circus, who discovered that she had "the face of an ugly woman that was not unpleasant," which may sound paradoxical.
Mary Ann Bevan’s Sideshow Success
Bevan was invited to perform in the sideshow at Coney Island's Dreamland amusement park, which at the time was one of the biggest venues in the world for sideshow performers, after mailing the agent a photograph created especially for the occasion. The idea for the attraction originated with Senator William H. Reynolds and promoter Samuel W. Gumpertz, who is regarded as one of the most influential people in sideshow history and later collaborated with Harry Houdini.
She was paraded alongside other well-known sideshow performers like Zip the "Pinhead," Jean Carroll, the Tattooed Lady, and Lionel, the Lion-Faced Man. The 154 pounds she lugged around on her 5' 7" frame, along with her size 11 feet and size 25 hands, were open for all Dreamland visitors to admire. Bevan accepted the demeaning treatment with composure. She "smiled mechanically, offered postcards of herself for sale," earning enough money for her own education and the education of her kids.
As the years went by, Mary Ann Bevan kept attracting crowds and even joined the world-famous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show to perform. In just two years of performing in New York, she earned £20,000, roughly equivalent to $1.6 million in 2022. She also succeeded in her goal of providing for her children.
The Last Days Of Mary Ann Bevan
Bevan also had relationships with people outside of the sideshow crowd and had friends. She began dating Andrew, a giraffe keeper, while she was performing at Madison Square Garden in 1929. She even consented to a makeover at a New York beauty salon, where stylists straightened her hair, gave her a manicure, and massaged her. They also put makeup on her face.
Mary Ann herself, however, upon seeing her reflection, merely said, "I guess I'll be getting back to work." Some people cruelly claimed that "the rouge and powder and the rest were as out of place on Mary Ann's countenance as lace curtains on the portholes of a dreadnought."
Bevan worked at Coney Island for the remainder of her life, passing away there on December 26, 1933, at the age of 59. She was buried in Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery in Southeast London before being flown back to her native country for her funeral.
Mary Ann Bevan was a forgotten figure known only to experts in sideshow history for many years before her likeness was mockingly used on a Hallmark card in the early 2000s. The card was withdrawn after concerns were raised about further humiliating her.