The fascinating and tragic story of Mary Ann Bevan

Mary Ann Bevan, once labeled ‘The ugliest woman in the world,’ had her story unfold in the 19th century, a dark era in American culture when ‘freak shows’ were in the zenith of their popularity. These traveling circuses showcased individuals with various deformities and disabilities, and at that time, it was not deemed morally wrong to brand them as ‘freaks.’

Born on December 20, 1874, in Plaistow, East London, United Kingdom, Mary Ann Bevan grew up to become a respected nurse, admired by society for both her profession and striking attractiveness. In 1902, she encountered the love of her life, Thomas Bevan, and they married, welcoming four children together. However, their joy was short-lived, as Thomas passed away after 14 years, leaving Mary heartbroken and facing the daunting task of providing for her children alone.

Mary’s life took a distressing turn around the age of 32 when she began experiencing inexplicable symptoms. Her facial features underwent a gradual transformation, causing psychological and financial strain. Afflicted by acromegaly, a hormonal disorder stemming from the overproduction of growth hormone by the pituitary gland in adulthood, Mary’s bones enlarged, and her face became deformed. Consequently, she lost her job, and the ability to support her children dwindled.

During the era in which Mary lived, there was no accurate diagnosis for her condition. Acromegaly, today better understood, results in increased bone size in the hands, feet, and face due to excess growth hormone. Modern knowledge allows for control and management of the condition, a luxury Mary did not have during her lifetime.

Despite being crushed, heartbroken, and financially struggling, a woman came across an advertisement one day seeking the “ugliest woman.” The ad specified that they didn’t want anyone repulsive, maimed, or disfigured, promising good pay and a lengthy engagement for the successful candidate. The only requirement was to send a recent photograph.

In a desperate attempt to improve her dire situation and provide for her children, she reluctantly responded to the ad. The circus agent, Claude Bartram, contacted her, sharing her story later on. Contrary to the expectations set by the ad, Mary was not repulsive. She had a distinctive facial structure resembling that of a giant—powerful, with a masculine jaw, prominent cheekbones, nose, and forehead. However, she was unblemished, healthy, and strong. Despite her reservations about putting herself on display, her primary motivation was being a mother in need.

Bartram assured Mary that she would earn £10 per week for a year, along with travel expenses and the proceeds from the sale of picture postcards featuring her. This arrangement was meant to support her children’s education.

Magazines quickly featured Mary Ann’s photos, dubbing her ‘the ugliest woman on Earth.’ Her newfound popularity led her to the Dreamland Circus in Coney Island, New York—a renowned circus at the time. Mary Ann became an attraction, but her story took an unexpected turn when Dr. Harvey Cushing, a prominent neurosurgeon, noticed her and sensed there was more to her condition.

In a letter to Time magazine, Dr. Cushing expressed that the woman, who sat in the sideshow between the ‘Fat Lady’ and the ‘Armless Wonder,’ and dressed in white lace hats, woollen mittens, and high laced shoes, had a story that was far from amusing. He revealed that Mary Ann had become a victim of acromegaly, a disease that transformed her from a vigorous and attractive young woman into the unfortunate figure showcased in the circus sideshow.

Mary Ann devoted her life to working in the circus, reportedly amassing a modest fortune that allowed her to send her children back to England for education in boarding schools.

Coney Island, Dreamland Circus Show

Despite enduring numerous challenges, Mary Ann persevered, driven by her unwavering dedication to her children.

At the age of 59, she passed away from natural causes. In her final moments, Mary Ann expressed a heartfelt wish to be laid to rest in her homeland, England. Her children dutifully fulfilled this wish, and she now rests peacefully at Ladywell and Brockley Cemetery in South London.

This poignant and captivating life story is a testament to a mother’s profound love for her children.

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