During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, circus sideshows were popular forms of entertainment. Carnival barkers lured audiences into darkened tents with stories of tattooed men, sword swallowers, and human skeletons. Spectators thrilled to the daring deeds of strongmen, fire breathers, and glass eaters. And, of course, no sideshow was complete without a bearded lady. One of the era’s most popular bearded ladies hailed from Michigan and is, in fact, buried in Maple Grove Cemetery in the northern Michigan community of Leetsville. That woman is Grace Gilbert.
Gilbert was born in Ohio in 1876, the youngest of Giles and Arosina Gilbert’s four children. Within minutes of her birth, Gilbert’s parents knew that something was different about their new addition. At an age when most babies have smooth, clear skin, the infant’s body was covered with fine, silky hair that only became thicker as she aged. By the time Gilbert was 18 months old, a newspaper article was reporting that the hair on her head was a foot long, and that she had three- to four-inch-long whiskers on her face. The phenomenon, according to the reporter, was “the greatest living curiosity we have ever seen.”
As Gilbert reached adulthood, she realized that career opportunities (and, in all likelihood, marriage prospects) were limited for a woman with a full beard, so when she was 18, she began appearing in sideshows. In 1901, the same year that Gilbert moved with her family to Kalkaska County, she signed on with Ringling Brothers Circus, one of the nation’s largest big tops. She was a sought-after attraction, as her beard, at 18 inches, was significantly longer than those of other bearded ladies at the time. In 1903, Gilbert left Ringling and joined its competitor, the Barnum & Bailey Circus. She stayed with Barnum until 1905, then signed on with a few other circuses, which afforded her the opportunity to tour England and France.
According to people who lived in the Kalkaska area at the same time that Gilbert did, the bearded lady was forced to wear a veil around town so that her appearance wouldn’t startle pregnant women who might be walking along the street with her.
For the rest of the story, see Tonya Blust, Michigan’s Bearded Lady, Grace Gilbert, Michigan 101 Blog, February 12, 2014.