An Ode to Jane Barnell

Wilmington’s world famous bearded lady (1871—unknown)

By Isabel Zermani

Once more the circus comes to town,

with big top tent o’er muddied ground.

Trapeze acrobatics do display

renewed talent of a bygone way.

Horses glide, beauties on their backs

for a swift and skillful balancing act.

If we could travel back in time

and we had with us just a dime,

to the smaller tent we’d go

to the Menagerie, Museum or Freak Show.

Lady Olga would meet us there,

to show off thirteen inches of hair.

Her curls grew from her cheeks and chin,

her lips, a downturn’d mustache frames in.

By Ringling she did ascend to fame,

but in truth her name is just plain Jane.

Hirsute child to George Barnell,

her mother decided to give or sell

downy-chinned Jane, then only four,

to a six-wagon circus for her first world tour.

A wire-walker, snake-charmer, and now, bearded Princess,

the oxen-drawn caravan left Wilmington express.

Much to her heartbroken father’s chagrin

it’d take o’er a year to find her — with typhoid in Berlin.

Jane’s grandmother, a Catabawa Indian,

then raised Jane, on her farm, to be self-sufficient. 

At age seventeen, for one blissful year,

Jane worked at the Old City Hospital here.

Shaving and passing and training to nurse,

her course was dislodged by the medically curious.

Though unspecific in reason, she fled from the doctors

claiming that they in fact were the monsters.

Soon she surrendered to fate, her “meal ticket,”

a train circus she join’d and all else did forfeit.

As “Whisk Broom” or “Billy Goat,” she occasionally wore it,

or free in the wind like “Old Testament prophets.”

On the stage Jane commands, her presence is austere,

her accent, Carolina, her boundaries, quite clear.

On the stage they don’t touch, though they gasp and gawk

at the circus or Hubert’s or Coney Island boardwalk. 

The three classes of freaks, she like’d to divide,

Born, Made, and Two-Timers, at the show on the side.

Born is the highest, it’s Carnegie Hall.

“Congress of Strange People” is Palace of the oddball.

When Jane quit in ’38, the manager Smythe groaned, bereft,

“She’s the only real, old-fashioned bearded lady left.”

Her story, not sweet, found comfort near the end,

doting on her fourth husband in New York’s West End.

(First, the musician died, then the ascensionist perished,

the third was lost to the bottle after causing much anguish.)

In a theatrical house on 8th Avenue,

lived the clown and the lady, and cat, Edelweiss, too.

Every month she donated to th’ A.S.P.C.A,

a cat don’t care “if you’re bearded,” they only care that you stay.

For more on Jane Barnell, read Joseph Mitchell’s profile on “Lady Olga” in The New Yorker, August 3, 1940.

Isabel Zermani, our senior editor, prefers the storied life.

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