The redheaded Grace Hester Gilbert was born on February 2nd in 1876 on a small farm near Nettle Lake, Ohio. She was the youngest of four children and the only one in the family to be born covered in a layer of silken hair. By the time she was 18 she was being exhibited full-time as a bearded lady.
She signed her first contract with Ringling Bros. Circus in 1901. At the time her beard measured more than 18 inches in length, which was several inches longer than her closest rival and longer than the known record. Before long, Barnum and Baily stole Grace Gilbert away from Ringling Bros to replace the deceased Annie Jones and the arrangement proved to be lucrative.
Although she was a redhead, Grace was known to bleach her beard. She was known briefly as “The Girl With the Golden Whiskers” but the effort to maintain the look proved to be a hassle and she soon reverted to her natural shade. Grace also exhibited with the McCaddon circus as well as the Hagenback-Wallace Circus and also toured England and France.
Grace was a sturdy farm girl. Her physic was far from feminine and as she helped assemble circus tents, run rigging and worked grueling manual jobs her true sex was often questioned. She did, however, still have admirers. 53-year-old Giles Calvin was one of the men who courted Grace. Grace and Giles had been sweethearts when Grace was a young girl and, as Mr. Calvin was a recent widow, Grace couldn’t help but develop tender and sentimental feelings. They were married in 1910 in Indiana. According to legend, the judge actually confused the groom and the bride during the service. This mix up didn’t help stifle the rumors that Grace wasn’t a woman. When it was revealed that Grace and Giles Calvin were cousins, something not unheard of at the time, many people insinuated that the marriage was one of convenience and for promotional purposes. Fed up with the rampant speculation, Grace announced her retirement soon after the wedding.
Of course, farm life is rough when compared to the fortune exhibition can bring and by 1916 Grace was again exhibiting in Coney Island.
Shortly after returning home for the season in January of 1924, Grace suddenly fell ill. Her husband was out of town at the time and Grace sought aid from her neighbors. She complained of “throat pain’ but her condition quickly grew much more serious. Within just a few hours Grace Gilbert – The Bearded Lady – was dead.
Grace was put to rest in what is now known as Maple Grove Cemetery. She was put to rest near her parents and a few years later her beloved husband joined her.