In the last decades of the 19th century and first decade or so of the 20th bearded ladies were a staple of circus sideshows and freak shows. Sensibilities were different then, and people with real (or fake) unusual body conditions were often exhibited as curiosities. The people included in the shows included giants, ‘Siamese’ twins, and bearded ladies.
Women with beards fascinated the era. Beards were associated with masculinity, and bearded ladies implied masculinity mixed with the feminine. Some of the bearded ladies, like other participants in the freak shows, were fake. But most seem to have had real beards, which were perhaps the result of hormonal imbalance, or more likely a rare but inheritable condition called hypertrichosis. There are several types, and it is difficult to diagnose which that a particular bearded lady might have had.
This condition is very rare but runs in families. It is sometimes called “werewolf syndrome.” It affects both men and women. The idea of an exhibition of so-called freaks disgusts most people today, but in the context of the time, such shows provided income, as well as acceptance in the circus community.
At the time, there would have been little economic opportunity and less acceptance outside the sideshows. Some performers did quite well for themselves, such as the bearded lady in P.T. Barnum’s circus, Josephine Clofullia (1827-1885) from Switzerland).
Circus sideshows faded away a century ago. There is still no cure for the condition, although there are treatments to remove the hair.
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