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Meet Alice Elizabeth Doherty: Minnesota's bearded, beautiful 'Woolly Girl'

Alice Elizabeth Doherty was a shy Minnesota girl with little interest in performing, but she ended up as a sideshow attraction anyway.

Alice Elizabeth Doherty was a shy Minnesota girl with little interest in performing, but she ended up as a sideshow attraction anyway.

In 1887, Aloysius Doherty of Minneapolis was at a loss over his new baby daughter. Alice Elizabeth Doherty had been born in March, round-faced, blue-eyed, and pretty as could be. And every inch of her tiny, pink body was covered in about two inches of silken blonde hair.

Alice had a rare genetic mutation known today as hypertrichosis lanuginosa. But those are fancier words than what Alice and her family had at the time. All they had were names like “Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy” (a Russian sideshow performer whose real name was Fedor Jeftichew). Alice’s hair would make her a curiosity at best and a pariah at worst.

Aloysius had a hard time adjusting to the way his daughter looked, but he quickly came around when his neighbors got curious about his baby daughter and wanted to see her. Then he realized it might be worth a little money. At the tender age of 2, Alice performed in her first sideshow.

She was a hit. A writer in Waukesha, Wisconsin, said she was “bright as a silver dollar” and showed “intelligence beyond her years.” She was cute, “frolicsome as a kitten,” and toothless.

By the age of 5, she was being examined by a group of fascinated women in Decatur, Illinois, who were sifting through her “light, almost white” hair to look for a sign that it had been attached there somehow. It was all naturally growing, they saw, and had grown “five to nine inches long.”

The most striking photo of Alice was taken during young adulthood, surrounded by her parents and siblings. Her hair trails from her face in feathery tresses, all the way down to her collarbone, and her eyes peer out from deep within the waves. Her nose and mouth are completely invisible. It would be difficult to tell if she were smiling.

Alice Doherty and her family make a striking portrait.

Alice Doherty and her family make a striking portrait.

There are plenty of historical examples of people with Alice’s condition – names often made famous by handlers capitalizing on their mutation. Fedor the “Dog-Faced Boy” used to perform in French circuses with his father, Adrian, who had the same hirsute mutation. After Adrian died, Fedor signed a contract with American circus tycoon P.T. Barnum at the age of 16, and the ringmaster concocted a story about Fedor being found in a cave with his “savage” father. He’d claim that Fedor barked when he was upset. Fedor, obliging, would demonstrate.

Stephan Bibrowski, born in Poland just a few years after Alice, joined the Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1901. He became and accomplished gymnast and made a point of speaking with his visitors to show them that he was actually a refined and gentle man. He died of a heart attack in Germany in 1932.

But Alice, by most accounts, was not a natural performer, and only took to the stage reluctantly to support her family. Once they had a comfortable sum of money in 1915, she stopped appearing onstage and began a more private life. Little is known today about those last several years, and that’s probably the way she would have wanted it.

She died “peacefully” in Dallas of unknown causes in 1933, at the age of 46. She never became as famous as Fedor or Bibrowski. But in spite of her calm, even shy demeanor, she’s still remembered as the Minnesota Woolly Girl.