Jane Barnell, a “bearded lady” who used the stage name Lady Olga, was born February 28, 1877 in Wilmington, North Carolina. According to historians, Jane was already bearded at four years old when Barnell’s mother sold Jane to the Great Orient Family Circus. Her deformity caused her mother to believe she was bewitched so she sold Jane to the circus when her father was away on business. The Circus took her to Germany. Jane quickly fell ill in Berlin with Typhoid Fever and expected to die, was left in an orphanage, where she was later found by her father and returned to her home.
She would later comment, “I have never been able to find out if Mamma got any money for me or just gave me away to get rid of me. She hated me, I know that. Daddy told me years later that he gave her a good beating when he got home from Baltimore and found out what had happened.”
As an adult, when she was working on her grandmother’s farm she met a circus strongman who invited her to join John Robinson’s Circus. Already being familiar with the circus environment, she quickly agreed and took on the stage name Lady Olga Roderick. At this time her beard was 13 inches long.
Lady Olga 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. During her lifetime she worked for more than 25 circuses earning between $20 and $100 per week. She worked for some time at Coney Island in New York City too. She appeared in a number of films, most famously Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) which, according to the documentary on the Freaks DVD, left her unhappy with the overall portrayal of the sideshow performers in the film. She was quoted as saying it was “an insult to all freaks everywhere.”
Barnell was married four times and had two children. She died on October 26, 1951 in Los Angles, California