"Pig-Faced Women" In Traveling Shows Were Actually Drunk, Shaved Bears In Dresses

Miss Atkinson, a woman with a pig's head, colored wood engraving. Image credit: Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0)

For unknown reasons – though a few of those reasons are bound to be "superstition" and "a whole lot of misogyny" – in the 17th century there emerged a legend of a person who had the body of a woman but the face of a pig.

Known, somewhat unimaginatively, as the "pig-faced woman", some of the earlier tales told of a woman who was given the face of a pig through witchcraft. Following her wedding day, the witch gave the husband the choice of having his wife appear as pig-faced to him and beautiful to everybody else, or pig-faced to everyone else and beautiful to him. When he left the choice to his beloved, the spell was broken and she returned to being a human-faced, human-bodied non-pig person.

The legends evolved as time went on, and lost some of their "Beauty and the Beast" feel to them, erring towards the more straightforward "there's a rich lady living in Manchester Square, London with a pig-face who eats from a silver trough" stories. Thanks to an insatiable appetite for "curiosities" in the 18th century, this story was written about in newspapers, including the Times, as if it were true, and crowds reportedly gathered around where she was said to live, one time surrounding her carriage and chanted "The pig-faced lady! The pig-faced lady! Stop the carriage—stop the carriage!" as you would. 

Another story claimed a young baronet named Sir William Elliot was asked into a lady's house in Grosvenor Square, but when he went in he found somebody looking away from him, dressed as a person. Though normally being dressed as a human would be what you'd expect, in this case, it was ominous, for when she turned around, so the tale goes, she had a "hideous pig's face". As he fled the woman let out a series of grunts.

As "freak shows" became popular (sorry anyone who loves The Greatest Showman, but PT Barnum was definitely not a benevolent benefactor), the stories of the pig-faced women got a weird real-world twist. People now wanted to see a pig-faced woman, rather than be merely told there's one.

Painted images were displayed of pig-faced ladies by people who were too afraid to get a bear off its face on beer, shave it, then cram it into a dress, while others put on a much better (though far less ethical) show by getting a bear off its face on beer, shaving it, and cramming it into a dress.

"The pig-faced lady is not infrequently exhibited in travelling-caravans, by showmen at fairs, country-wakes, races and places of general resort," Robert Chambers wrote in 1832.

"The lady is represented by a bear, having its head carefully shaved and adorned with cap, bonnet, ringlets and flowers. The animal is securely tied in an upright position, into a large arm-chair, the cords being concealed by the shawl, gown, and other parts of the lady's dress."

Charles Dickens himself wrote of these fairs. "In every age, I suppose, there has been a pigfaced lady," he wrote, in a weary tone, like he'd seen so many pig-faced women he found it tiresome. "Such a personage used to be the stock-in-trade of nearly every showman, no fair was complete without one."

The attraction, Dickens reported, came with the description: "This Mounster was a Gentlewoman of a Good family and fortune, very tall and well proportioned of a very one fair white Skin, Black Hair on her head and Eyebrows, but her face Perfectly Shaped like that of a Hog or Sow, Except it was not Hairry when she went abroad she Covered her face with a Large Black Velvet Mask. She had a Grountling Voise like that of a Hog," – so the clues were there – "very Disagreable, but Spoke very Distinctly, she Lived in St. Andrew's Parish in Holborn, London."

At this particular fair, they had gone to the trouble of placing the drunk bear in undergarments and a dainty dress. Which I'm sure is convincing if it were not accompanied by all the mannerisms and grunts of an animal that is quite clearly a disgruntled shaved bear.

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