PT Barnum’s circus was full of curiosities, including bearded women. One of these was Annie Jones, who joined the show at just nine months old. Billed as ‘The Infant Esau’ – the biblical Esau being distinguished by his wealth of hair – Jones was able to grow a full beard, moustache and sideburns. This was probably due to hirsutism, a condition that causes excessive body hair to grow in areas where it is normally absent. As well as being one of the star attractions, Jones also became a spokesperson for the ‘freaks’ in Barnum’s show and campaigned to rid the circus of the offensive term.
The Ancient Egyptians strangely preferred false beards to the real thing. Pharaohs, both male and female, would don metallic beards for ceremonies in order to emulate Osiris, God of the Underworld and Judge of the Dead, who was often depicted with a beard and a feathered crown called an atef. Burial masks often featured beards, too. In 2014, the beard on Tutankhamun’s mask broke and conservators hastily reattached it with glue, scratching the mask.
In ancient Egypt, even queens were depicted with false beards. (Image by De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images Plus)
Castro’s beard was part of his public persona and he wore it as a symbol of his triumph during the Cuban Revolution. The CIA concocted numerous assassination attempts against him, including attacking his image. One plan was to dust his shoes with toxic thallium salts while he travelled overseas, making his beard fall out. It was hoped that Castro would be ridiculed without his iconic facial hair, but the trip was cancelled and the plan foiled.
The Tudor king’s beard – or lack of – nearly sent the country into war back in 1519. Henry and Francis I of France were attempting to arrange a meeting. Both kings promised not to shave until they met. But Henry’s wife, Catherine of Aragon, wasn’t a fan of her husband’s rugged look and asked him to shave. Francis’ mother took this as a slight against her son and some swift diplomatic flattery was required to restore the peace.
When it comes to the winner in the longest beard stakes, the trophy has to go to Hans Langseth. A native of Norway, he emigrated to the US in 1867. He began growing his beard at 19 for a local competition and liked it so much that he carried on growing it. A farmer by profession, for a while he travelled the country in a ‘freak show’, showing off his long beard. At his death in 1927 it measured a whopping 5.33 metres and, in line with Langseth’s wishes, his family had it chopped off his body. It now resides in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
US president Abraham Lincoln is easily recognisable with his full beard. During his early political career, however, he was clean shaven. That was until he received a letter from 11-year-old Grace Bedell, a month before the 1860 presidential election: “If you will let your whiskers grow, I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you. You would look a great deal better.” Lincoln replied to his young admirer, expressing concern that a beard would look silly. But within the month, he had grown a beard and won the election.
Abraham Lincoln’s last portrait before growing his vote-winning bristles. (Image by Library of Congress)
EDWARD MARIA WINGFIELD
As well as keeping your chin warm and for aesthetic appeal, sometimes beards can save your life. Edward Maria Wingfield was one of the financial backers of the Virginia Company of London. They established the English colony of Jamestown in Virginia, with Wingfield becoming the colony’s first president. During a particularly brutal Native American attack in 1607, Wingfield was shot with an arrow – but only through his beard. The rest of him escaped unscathed.
Thomas More was once a trusted mentor to Henry VIII. A deeply religious man, he could not reconcile himself with Henry’s break from the Catholic Church in order to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. More resigned from his role as Lord Chancellor and refused to swear an oath recognising Henry as the head of the Church of England. Beheaded in 1535, on the chopping block he reportedly laid his long beard out of the way and asked the executioner to spare it with his blade, noting “this hath not offended the king.”
Beards are not normally feared as being dangerous, but for one man excessive facial hair would be the death of him. Hans Steininger was mayor of the town of Braunau (now in Austria) in the 16th century. He was renowned for his incredibly long beard – believed to measure nearly two metres – which he kept tucked in a pouch. In September 1567, tragedy struck when a fire broke out in the town. In the chaos, Steininger tripped over his beard and fell down some stairs, breaking his neck.
Legendary pirate Blackbeard was feared across the Caribbean Sea and the North American colonies. His nickname apparently came from his thick beard, where he would keep lit fuses to scare his enemies. Much of his life is still a mystery, but his legacy went on to inspire the quintessential idea of the pirate as the fearsome rogue of the seas.
This article was first published in the May 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed