Long before The Bearded Lady was a staple in the sideshow, bearded ladies were already revered in the mythology and folklore of the old world. In the fifth century B.C.E. Hippocrates himself, the father of modern medicine, documented a bearded priestess named Athena. It was believed that her beard empowered the priestess with special clairvoyant abilities. In the Middle Ages most bearded ladies were regarded as witches, however one 14th century Spanish nun – and bearded woman – was sainted. The festival of Saint Paula the Bearded is still celebrated every January 20th. Also, believe it or not, Saint Paula is not the only follicular endowed religious figure. July 20th is the Feast of St. Wilgefortis, she was the daughter of the King of Portugal and another rumored Bearded Lady. It has also long been rumored that the 15th century regent of the Netherlands, Margret of Parma, was bearded. However that tale is likely pure fiction. An embarrassing tale likely told by her detractors.
It wasn’t until the Renaissance that Bearded Ladies began to exhibit themselves for profit. Julia Pastrana was likely the most famous of the Bearded Ladies. However Mme. Clofullia was a close second in her time.
Born in 1831 in the Swiss village of Versoix, Josephine Boisdechene was born covered with fine fur and she was bearded by the age of two. Today her condition is know as hirsutism, which is a variant of hypertrichosis. However, local doctors were baffled by her condition and most were hoping the young girl would simply ‘grow out of it’. It was recommended that she be taken to doctors in Geneva when she was older. At the age of eight her parents did just that however, by that age, her beard was already over two inches long. The Geneva doctors were baffled as well and Josephine’s parents did not know what to do, they even feared that shaving the beard would result in its growing back longer and thicker. Instead, they opted to hide Josephine as best they could and shipped her off to boarding school.
Boarding school provided Josephine with grace, charm and an elegant etiquette. Despite the fact that she was quite a fine lady, by the age of sixteen, Josephine’s beard measured over six inches and her appearance was drawing crowds. Attempting to make the best of her unique situation, she began to exhibit herself in Geneva and France with her father acting as her agent. It was in France that Josephine met a bearded artist named Fortune Clofullia. The two fell in love and were soon married. Now known as Madame Clofullia, Josephine attempted to quiet the rumors that she was a man by becoming pregnant and giving birth to a normal baby girl in 1851. The public and doctors were satisfied by this, however the infant died after only 11 months. She bore a second child, this time a boy named Albert, only a few months after the death of her daughter. Albert was quite a handsome and healthy boy, however he too sported a fine beard as an infant.
P. T. Barnum eventually signed Madame Clofullia in 1853 and she began to appear at his American Museum in New York as ‘The Bearded Lady of Geneva’. During her displays with Barnum, Josephine looked regal. Her femininity was accentuated by her Victorian wardrobe, her beard was styled after Napoleon III and it was often opulently adorned with jewels. As her popularity as an attraction grew, rumors again began to circulate that Josephine was a man. The issue eventually ended up in a court of law. The trail was a media frenzy. Doctors were eventually called to testify and three signed an absolute affidavit that ‘The Bearded Lady’ was indeed a complete female.
To this day, rumors persist that P. T. Barnum himself was the originator of those rumors. When one considers that during the trial over 3 million people paid Barnum to see Mme. Clofullia accompanied by her son Albert – as the ‘Infant Esau’, that hypothesis seems quite plausible.
Mme Clofullia continued be be popular for quite some time after her trial. However, despite her fame the happenings of her later years are unknown. Her later history is lost to time and her date of death is unknown.
Image: reproduction broadside.