Mary Ann Bevan was a mother of four who led a normal life until she developed a rare condition that changed her forever.
At the age of 32, she began to experience physical changes that gradually transformed her from an attractive young lady into the person that people would come to call “The Ugliest Woman in the World.”
Her hands, feet, and face all became contorted and enlarged to the point that she was no longer recognizable. As much as we may like to believe that “beauty is only skin deep,” the truth is her condition made her life into a living hell.
Yet through all of the torment that she endured, she never stopped being a mother to her children. She even joined a freak show just so she could continue to provide for them.
This is the tragic story of Mary Ann Bevan, the woman who discovered firsthand just how cruel society can be when people see you not for who you are, but for what you look like.
The Early Life of Mary Ann Bevan
Mary Ann Bevan was born on December 20, 1874, to a poor family in a neighborhood of East London. As one of eight children, her prospects for getting ahead in life were not great, to begin with.
Despite the challenging start, Mary Ann Bevan must have felt that she was doing something right. She became a nurse in 1894. And she eventually fell in love and then married a farmer named Thomas Bevan.
Up until that point, Mary Ann might have felt a sense of satisfaction and security in the ordinariness of her life. She was young and good-looking, and she had a husband with whom she had four children.
Thinking of the future, Mary Ann might have imagined a long and happy marriage. Perhaps she imagined having more kids.
But soon after getting married, Mary Ann’s life started to go horribly wrong.
Her face and body began to change before her eyes. Her jaw extended downward, her limbs swelled, and her nose became unusually bulbous. Like Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samson, she soon could no longer recognize the person that gazed back at her from the mirror.
Unbeknownst to her, Mary Ann Bevan suffered from a rare condition known as acromegaly. This disease, which continues to affect between 3 and 14 out of every 100,000 people, has its origins in the pituitary gland. This causes an excess of growth hormone that leads to enlarged body parts.
Everything from limbs to organs to bones can grow in size. It can also lead to other serious health complications.
While today acromegaly can be treated if diagnosed early, Mary Ann Bevan had no chance of mitigating the baffling changes that overtook her. In a short period, the young bride was transformed into “The Ugliest Woman in the World.”
And her life would never be the same.
The Diagnosis That Changed Her Life
Despite the extreme physical changes that changed Mary Ann from a beautiful young woman into something wholly different, her husband stuck by her side and continued to support her.
Unfortunately, eleven years into their marriage, Thomas suddenly died. This left Mary Ann to provide for their children as best as she could.
Her physical appearance made it difficult to find permanent work and she was forced to take whatever odd jobs she could find. Employers had trouble seeing past her exterior and she struggled to make money.
One day, she was working for a farmer. He told her that the only job she was fit for was the ugliest woman contest, also known as the “Homeliest Woman” contest.
She was reluctant to put herself on display, but she had few other options. When she saw an ad for a traveling freak show, she decided to ignore her reservations and present herself for an interview. The ad read:
“Wanted: Ugliest woman. Nothing repulsive, maimed or disfigured.
Good pay guaranteed, and long engagement for successful applicant.
Send recent photograph.”
The man who hired her, Claude Bartram, later described Mary Ann’s behavior during the interview:
“She was not repulsive at all. She had the kind of face one usually finds in a giant, a powerful, masculine jaw, prominent cheek-bones, nose and forehead, but she was unblemished, healthy and strong.
“She told me she did not like the idea of placing herself on exhibition, she was shy and did not want to be separated from her children.
“I told her she would earn £10 per week for a year, travelling expenses and all the money from the sale of picture postcards of herself, so she could provide for the education of her children. She wavered but finally agreed.”
Mary Ann was not fond of the idea of exposing herself to the degradations of the public. But she sacrificed her dignity for the well-being of her four children.
Her decision was noble, but that wouldn’t make her life in the freak show any easier.
Life As a Freak Show Performer
After being shuttled around Britain before audiences of gawking spectators, Mary Ann eventually came to the attention of legendary showman, P.T. Barnum. He wanted her to join his circus in the US.
She accepted his offer. In 1920, she left her children and went to America to continue her never-ending tour as a human curiosity.
In show after show, she donned clothing that accentuated her features. She was forced to endure the laughter and cruel remarks of anyone who paid money to see the show.
Back then, the freak show was one of the most popular parts of the circus. On the one hand, this meant that Mary Ann would have had to put up with a daily barrage of insults and commentaries from the crowd. On the other hand, she made a good living.
Her salary with P.T. Barnum was about 20,000 pounds, which is 500,000 pounds in today’s currency. With that money, she was finally able to send her kids to boarding school. This ensured that they received the education that she always dreamed of for them.
Mary Ann Bevan’s story does not have a silver lining or a happy ending. It only illustrates how challenging life can be for someone who is deemed “different.”
Mary Ann Bevan spent the rest of her life as a freak show performer, eventually squandering much of her money on alcohol and bad investments. Her last place of employment was the Coney Island Dreamland Show, where she worked until she died in 1933 at the age of 59 years old.
Her story may be tragic, but it also shows that as cruel as people can be, the capacity for goodness is just as strong. Throughout her life, Mary Ann never stopped thinking about her children, even when she was thousands of miles away.
While most people knew her as the “The Ugliest Woman in the World,” her actions prove that she really should have been called “The Greatest Mother on Earth.”