Jane Barnell

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Lady Olga

Jane Barnell (January 3, 1871 – October 26, 1951) was an American bearded lady who used the stage name Lady Olga.

Biography[edit]

Jane Barnell was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, to George Barnell, a Russian Jewish itinerant wagon maker, and his wife, a woman of Irish and Catawban ancestry. She was their second child, and she had three sisters and two brothers. She was named after her maternal grandmother. Her mother was from York County, South Carolina. By two years of age she was capable of growing a beard. Her mother took her to hoodoo doctors and other folk healers to remove her condition.[1]

In 1875, Barnell's mother sold the 4-year-old Jane to the Great Orient Family Circus and Menagerie while her father was away on business in Baltimore. The circus consisted of the Muslim woman who worked as manager, two of her daughters who danced, and three sons who juggled and were tight rope walkers. Jane toured with circus for several months around the South before the circus went to New Orleans, left for Europe, and took her with her. In Europe the circus toured with a German circus. She fell ill with typhoid fever in Berlin. She was placed in a charity hospital and later in an orphanage. She was later found by her father by the time she was 5. He had either tracked the circus from the Carolinas and the all the way to Europe, or the woman who was ran the circus had the Berlin police contact the sheriff of Wilmington.[2]

After that incident, Barnell was placed in the care of her Catawban grandmother who lived in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. She began to shave in order to conceal her condition. Her grandmother told her stories about Florence Nightingale, which inspired her to work as as student nurse in the old city hospital at Wilmington when she turned 17. She worked there for about a year until an unpleasant incident occurred that made her believe she would never have a normal life. She returned to her grandmother's farm. In spring 1892 she met a circus performer named Professor William Heckler who talked her into stopping shaving and got her employment with John Robinson’s Circus. She tried several stage names before eventually settling on Lady Olga Roderick. At that time her beard was 13 inches long. She went back to North Carolina every winter until her grandmother died in 1899. She worked with the Robinson circus for fourteen years.[3]

Barnell toured for a time with a number of circuses, including the Ringling Brothers circus, and later joined Hubert's Museum in Times Square, New York. She appeared in a number of films, most famously Tod Browning's Freaks (1932) which, according to the documentary on the Freaks DVD (Freaks: The Sideshow Cinema, 2004), left her unhappy with the overall portrayal of the sideshow performers in the film.

Personal life[edit]

Barnell was married four times. Her first marriage was to a German musician who played in the band for John Robinson's Circus. She had two children with him. Her husband and their two children died in the years afterwards. Her second husband was a balloonist who was killed months after their marriage. Her third marriage was to an alcoholic whom she divorced. Her last marriage was to her manager Thomas O'Boyle, an orphan ex-circus clown and a sideshow talker for Hubert's Dime Museum. She had little contact with her family after she became a performer. She believed they thought she was a disgrace. By 1940 she claimed to have not seen her siblings in 22 years and believed them to be dead. One of her sisters worked as nurse helping blind Chinese children.[4]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Mitchell, Joseph (1993). Up in the Old Hotel, and Other Stories. New York: Vintage Books. pp. 89–105. ISBN 9780679746317. 
  2. ^ Mitchell, Joseph (1993). Up in the Old Hotel, and Other Stories. New York: Vintage Books. pp. 89–105. ISBN 9780679746317. 
  3. ^ Mitchell, Joseph (1993). Up in the Old Hotel, and Other Stories. New York: Vintage Books. pp. 89–105. ISBN 9780679746317. 
  4. ^ Mitchell, Joseph (1993). Up in the Old Hotel, and Other Stories. New York: Vintage Books. pp. 89–105. ISBN 9780679746317.