Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Mystery of the Bearded Lady

This post was originally made on August 18, 2010. One of the Comments below says that the commenter would not be surprised if the Beaded Lady showed up in one of my stories. Well, she did, even though I forgot all about this post. The sixth story in The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall: Secrets of Marienstadt is "Of Beautiful Strangers, Woodchucks, and Bearded Ladies." Enjoy: 

I posted this to my blog over 2 years ago and one of the people in the Comments section said, "I wouldn't be surprised to see them as characters in your next book." She was right. They are in Story 6 of The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall!

UPDATE! (see below)
I was doing some research on the internet about my hometown, St. Marys, Pennsylvania, when I came across an online collection of historic photos, postcards and memorabilia by a St. Marys antiques dealer. There was lots of good stuff there including this photograph:

It is labeled “The Bearded Lady of Elk County: Mrs. Myers or Meyers”. I was immediately fascinated by it and posted it to my Facebook page where it prompted a pretty lively discussion.

Because we live in the era of Prop 8, my mind went wild and I started imagining a scenario in which two men in 1880s central Pennsylvania who were in love decided to try living as man and wife. They accomplished this deed by one of them posing as a woman but, as the years went by, they wanted to flaunt their deception by allowing the lady of the house to grow quite an impressive beard. Can you imagine the times in which they lived? Since, at the time, St. Marys was not exactly the hub of the world they might have thought they were safe away from the eyes of people who might be less gullible.

Naturally this was all in my imagination and, since I am a fiction writer, the story got increasingly colorful and intricate.

At the same time I emailed a copy to my friend Ray in PA who is a professional photographer and also a historian. He is currently involved in a huge project to archive the local historical society's massive photography collection. Ray emailed back and said this was the first he knew of such a “bearded lady”. He said the photograph looked like what was known as a “cart de vista” and, in his opinion, it was a fake. I'm inclined to agree with him though who is responsible for the deception can only imagined.

I took the photo in to Photoshop and enlarged the head of the woman (below) and, as Ray pointed out, her head is disproportionately large and her neck is disproportionately long. You can see long, carefully groomed curls tumbling over her shoulders and a funny little crown or tiara in her head. My guess is somebody superimposed the face, beard and hair of a bearded man over that of the original lady in the picture. Her hands are also quite masculine but, of course, in those days women worked hard and it is not difficult to imagine a woman having tough, rugged looking hands.

So, I suppose we'll never know who thought this trick up. The photo as posted on Mark Wendel's web site might give us a clue. If you click on it and check the Properties it is titled “beerded lady.jpg” --- BEERded, not bearded. St. Marys is also the home of Straub's Beer and I'm wondering if some of that stuff might not have been involved. Maybe someone indulged in a bit of Straub's and thought it a giggle to create a “beerded” lady. 
You never know.
Photographer Alexander Thompson just sent me this:

Bearded Woman
carte de visite, 4 x 2.5 inches, circa 1880
photographer’s logo stamped on reverse and signed in pencil
"Mrs. A. … Elk County PA, Age 24" (Note: St. Marys is in Elk County, PA)
photographer: I.W. Taber & Co., Yosemite Art Gallery, 26 Montgomery Street, San Francisco, California

I am not entirely certain of this lady’s identity. It may be Annie Jones, who was twice married, or it may be the performer known as ‘Mrs. Meyers’. The penciled surname on the back is difficult to decipher – it could be "Myers" or something like "Ingram".

Another likely possibility is that this is Jane Devere, a native of Kentucky who worked for Sells Brothers and several other shows. In 1884, Madame Devere's beard was measured at an alleged 14 inches, which is purportedly the record length for a woman's beard.
This is a steampunk-style necklace someone posted on Flikr:
This is from Dennis McGeehan's book on St. Marys. I went to high school with Dennis and own a copy of his book. I never noticed this before:

Thanks for reading.   


  1. As an expert photographer myself, and one who's had a great deal of practice in montage and darkroom trickery, I have to say I think it is genuine. Firtly the eyes are fixed on the same object as the mans. Almost impossible to duplicate unless the scene were shot at the same place and time of day, since it was done by window light or 'abat jour'. The subtle shadow cast by the beard upon the silk of the lady's dress is perfect, and beyond the skill of all but a select few over the centuries. Carté Visíte photographs of this sort are all Contact printed directly from the negative. So if this were a fake, it was an extremely labor intensive alteration of the original negative, or an amazingly wasteful and equally labor intensive alteration of just one small postcard sized print.
    The proportions of the bearded lady are strange, but not out of the realm of the possible. I would say your intuition (and hypothetical story) are correct.

  2. I love the idea that "Mrs." Meyers was actually a Mr. I also would not be surprised to find them as characters in your next book.

  3. Ha! Don't think I haven't thought of it!! It won't be in the next novel but there is definitely a story in this.

    Alex, looks like you were correct!

  4. I lived in St. Marys all my life and I never heard of this. Weird story.

  5. Sorry I have to post anonymously but I own the same photo you posted first. I bought it in an antique store in a small town in Minnesota. It also has writing on the front "Mr and Mrs A Meyers" and writing on the back of the photo with the last name spelled Myers. Just thought I'd let you know there are more of them out there so I doubt it's a fake.

  6. "She" lived in St. Marys with her husband. I always heard she was, as you suspected, a gay man.


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