How Annie Jones became famous as PT Barnum’s « bearded lady » and yet died as a « monstrous phenomenon » of the circus in the eyes of the company that gnawed at her.
Bearded women have been a favorite subject since time immemorial, and were often at the top of the list of « circus freaks ». Although Annie Jones became famous because of this, it didn’t stop her life from being marked by tragedy.
Annie Jones becomes the bearded lady
Annie Jones was born in Virginia in 1865 and would have come out of her mother’s womb when her chin was already covered with hair.
Her parents’ initial shock of having a young girl with the hair of an adult man quickly faded after they realized they had been presented with a unique opportunity to earn money. Jones wasn’t even a year old when her parents first pushed her into the PT Barnum show in New York City. The little girl’s name was The Infant Esau, a reference to Jacob’s famous hairy brother in the Old Testament.
In addition, Jones has been described as « the most wonderful specimen of shaggy development known since the time of Esau » and thus began his career in the entertainment business before he could even walk. She was such a popular attraction that Barnum offered her mother a three-year contract at a rate of $150.
But Jones would serve as a secondary attraction for much longer than the duration of that initial contract. Over time, « Little Esau » became the « Lady Esau » and eventually the « Bearded Lady ».
Along the way, Jones seduced the audience by playing her feminine aspects such as her hair, dressing in fashionable women’s clothing and learning to play the mandolin. The contrast worked and Annie Jones proved to be one of Barnum’s most memorable acts.
The woman behind the « monster
It is still not known exactly what caused Annie Jones’ illness. Although it is probably hirsutism, a disease that causes « coarse hair in women in a similar distribution to men » and is believed to affect about 5-10% of women.
Indeed, although Jones may have been the most famous bearded lady of the time. Due to the fact that she was part of Barnum’s very famous show. She was certainly not the only one. Julia Pastrana, born in 1834, was a Mexican woman whose body was almost entirely covered with thick black hair. Considered « the monkey woman », Pastrana was another minor celebrity of the Victorian era who travelled throughout Europe during her life. But also as a mummified specimen after her death in 1860.
Like Pastrana, Annie Jones had a short life, one that hardly allowed her to flourish outside the tent.
In 1880 Jones married a man named Richard Elliot, a « barker ». The man who shouted at passers-by to lure them to see the attractions. As an adult, she concealed her age and her parents disapproved of the marriage.
Nevertheless, the marriage lasted 15 years, until the two divorced in 1895. Soon after, Jones married William Donovan. The two lovers decided to travel as a duo for a while. They toured Europe together before the unexpected death of her husband four years later. Rather than continue alone, Jones chose to return to the only home she had ever truly known… And joined PT Barnum’s « greatest show on earth ».
Although Jones owed all of her fame and fortune to being presented as a « Barnum Monster »… It was at this point in her career that she campaigned against the use of the word to describe performing artists. However, at the age of 37, she died of tuberculosis after visiting her mother, having « known no other life than that of a monster ».
Since then, there have been other famous bearded women. Her case is not unique!