Despite what her unfortunate name suggested Grace McDaniels (1888-1958) did not resemble a mule. She was born in Numa, Iowa with a condition called Sturge-Weber Syndrome which by around age 30 had degenerated to such a point that she joined Harry Lewiston’s Circus as a freak (a designation she understandably objected to). In 1935 she joined F.W. Miller’s sideshow after winning an “ugliest woman” competition. Grace preferred “mule-faced” to “ugly” in her billing and was generally mortified by the attention she got from her condition. Audience members were known to scream or faint; some reported nightmares in the aftermath. In early years she tried to cover her anomaly (which began as a wine colored birthmark) with make-up; later she wore a veil in public. Raped by a carnival worker, she gave birth to a son she named Elmer, who grew up to be her manager. Elmer turned out to be cruel and abusive, stealing from Grace and her employers in order to cover gambling debts. This happened just as she was becoming more dependent, the growths on her face swelling to the point where she couldn’t speak. Eventually, the sideshows stopped hiring her. She died at age 70. Elmer died shortly thereafter of cirrhosis of the liver.
To find out about the history of the variety arts, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
Also please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc