Grace McDaniels was born in 1888, the same year that Jack the Ripper was terrorizing London, on a farm near Numa, Iowa to perfectly average parents. After winning an ‘ugliest woman’ contest in 1935, Grace joined up with F.W. Miller’s sideshow.
Grace likely suffered from Sturge-Weber Syndrome. Sturge-Weber Syndrome is a genetic condition which, in Grace’s case, caused a large, port wine coloured birthmark to thicken and distort the flesh of her face. Her condition was degenerative in nature and became worse with age. Shortly before her death, the fold of skin on her face hung more than four inches below her chin. Eventually, Grace had difficulty speaking due to the growth that enveloped her face.
Grace was very sensitive about her appearance. She often tried to hide her disfigurement with makeup and then later, as her condition worsened she took to wearing a veil. Grace also greatly disliked being called a freak and hated the ‘World’s Ugliest Woman’ epithet used to advertise her appearances. She was often seen backstage covering her ears as not to hear the ballyhoo – the outside sales pitch – and the talker calling her a freak and detailing her deformities. However, as time went on and she began to make a good living with the sideshow, she became more and more comfortable with her condition and position in life. Eventually, she was able to convince the talkers and promoters to refer to her by the moniker she is know by today – Grace McDaniels the ‘Mule Faced Woman’.
Those who knew Grace said she was a wonderful, if shy, person. Later in life, Grace became a mother. A great deal was made of the event and for quite some time an almost fairytale mythology sprung up around the birth of her son Elmer. Contrary to those charming stories of love and marriage, the truth is that a carnival handyman – allegedly named Johnny – impregnated Grace while he was intoxicated and was never heard from again.
While Elmer was born a normal child, he grew into a physically and emotionally abusive alcohol and morphine addict who regularly stole from both Grace and from the sideshow – to pay off dangerous gambling debts. Acting as his mother’s manager, it wasn’t long before sideshows stopped hiring Grace due to the reputation of her son.
The sad life of Grace McDaniels ended peacefully in 1958 – and the true monster, her son Elmer, soon followed due to sclerosis of the liver.
Excerpts of the above taken from the book Very Special People and American Sideshow.