In 1900s England, a mother-of-four named Mary Ann Bevan developed acromegaly and took up the title of being “the ugliest woman in the world” as a way to provide for her children. This is her tragic story, a reminder of how cruel the world can be.
The World’s Homeliest Woman wasn’t always the epitome of ugliness. Bevan was actually an attractive woman in her early years before she suffered from acromegaly.
The disfiguring ailment, a disorder in which the pituitary gland overproduces growth hormones, can cause adults to suddenly begin growing again.
Hands and feet may swell, and the changing bone structure alters facial features. Bevan’s pleasant face became grotesque, as her brow and lower jaw protruded and her nose expanded.
Bevan’s more beautiful days began in East London, where she was born as Mary Ann Webster in 1874. She became a nurse and by 1903 had married a farmer from Kent, Thomas Bevan.
The happy couple had four healthy children. All was well with Bevans until Thomas died unexpectedly, in 1914. It has been reported that his widow’s acromegaly manifested itself after his death, though other sources claim the disease had already set in.
Acromegaly is one of the rarer pituitary conditions, and today, it can be treated if detected early enough. However, under the limitations of early 20th-century medicine, Bevan had no way of treating or preventing the condition, and she soon found her features changing beyond recognition.
Bevan decided to capitalize on her worsening appearance in order to help support her large family. She entered a local “The Ugliest Woman” contest and bested 250 unsightly competitors.
The original advertising, placed by a British agent for Barnum and Bailey’s circus, read “Wanted: Ugliest woman. Nothing repulsive, maimed or disfigured. Good pay guaranteed, and long engagement for successful applicants. Send recent photograph.”
Blessed with such an unfortunate title, Bevan found work in the sideshow. The job seemed secure, as doctors promised she would continue to grow uglier.
In 1920, she was hired by Sam Gumpertz to appear in Coney Island’s Dreamland sideshow, a form of freak show, where she spent most of the remainder of her life.
The public was invited to gawk “at the 154 pounds she carried on her 5′ 7″ frame, as well as her size 11 feet and size 25 hands”.
She endured the disgusted looks of spectators for years, all to feed and educate her children. She occasionally treated visitors to photos of her beautiful family and boasted of her son’s position in the British navy.
Eventually, Bevan succeeded in her goal of providing for her children, in the years performing in New York, she earned $50,000, roughly equivalent to $800,000 in today’s money.
The World’s Ugliest Woman also appeared with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show. In 1929, while performing at Madison Square Garden, Bevan fell in love with the show’s giraffe keeper, known as Andrew.
The two were friendly to each other, and most importantly, the sideshow star didn’t repulse the giraffe keeper. Nevertheless, Bevan chose to risk her career and get a makeover. A local beauty shop enlisted experts to work their magic on her.
Some people held that the manicure, massage, permanent, and various treatments improved her looks, while other people told a newspaper that “the rouge and powder and the rest were out of place in Mary Ann’s countenance as lace curtains on the portholes of a dreadnought.”
After seeing the result for herself, the still-homely woman remarked, “I guess I’ll be getting back to work.” Her job was safe. There is no report on the giraffe keeper’s reaction.
Bevan continued exhibiting herself for the next several years, despite increasing pain and blindness from the disease.
Her title as World’s Ugliest Woman was eventually relinquished upon her death in 1933, at age of 59. Today she is put to rest at the Ladywell and Brockley Cemetery in South London as per her dying wish.
The Hallmark Controversy
In the early 2000s, Bevan’s image was used on a birthday card in the United Kingdom made by Hallmark Cards. The card made reference to the dating show Blind Date, the ‘joke’ being that Mary Ann was the blind date.
A complaint was made by a Dutch physician that it was disrespectful to a woman who had become deformed as the result of a disease.
Hallmark agreed to stop distribution of the card but said it would not recall existing stock. Lisa Palillo, communications manager for Hallmark, said, “Once we found that this lady was ill, rather than simply being ugly, then the card was . . . withdrawn immediately, as it would breach anything we would do in terms of taking the mick out of anyone who was poorly.”
Wouter de Herder, a consultant endocrinologist at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, said he was horrified when he saw the card on sale while on holiday in the UK. “I immediately recognised the photo as I had just written an article about Mary Ann Bevan,” he said. “She had been an attractive young London nurse but then suffered from a painful disease called acromegaly”.
“This caused bone and facial disfigurement, which in those days could not be properly treated. As her husband had died, the only way she could find to make a living to support her four children was to be in a freak show and be called the world’s ugliest woman.
“She was in several shows in England and then later in the United States, but she led a miserable, painful life. I simply don’t think it’s right in 2006 to use her image to create a sick birthday card. I feel that this card is insulting to all patients who suffer from the same condition.”
(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / Flickr / Pinterest / American Sideshow By Marc Hartzman / American Philosophical Society).