Of those who could claim to have rested their head on a lion’s lower jaw, Isaac van Amburgh was the first. An intrepid animal trainer, Van Amburgh was said to have been unmatched in his feats of derring-do. He and his pride of tamed felines became something of an international sensation, commanding the attention of no less estimable a personage than Queen Victoria, who commissioned a portrait of him, so impressed was she by his talents. Others among the great and good stood equally astounded. The Duke of Wellington was reported to have asked Van Amburgh, “Were you ever afraid?,” to which the celebrated lion tamer responded, “The first time I am afraid, your grace, or that I fancy my pupils are no longer afraid of me, I shall retire from the wild beast line.”
The loneliness of the bearded lady — who does it concern besides the lady herself? No one really, save perhaps a curious soul or two. Journalist Joseph Mitchell was one such soul. In his 1940 piece on Jane Barnell (aka Lady Olga), America’s most famous bearded lady, he writes that she “occasionally considers herself an outcast and feels that there is something vaguely shameful about the way she makes a living.” Hirsute since infancy, Barnell was put on exhibition shortly after her fourth birthday, when her parents sold her to the Great Orient Family Circus. Her stint with the outfit marked the beginning of a long career, during which she appeared in at least twenty-five circuses and sideshows.