The eldest of four children born to a Swiss farming family, Joséphine Boisdechêne was born in Versoix, Switzerland, on March 25, 1831, just eleven months after her parents were married. At birth, she was covered in a sparse coat of dark hair. A doctor reassured the family that the hair would fall out soon; it was just lanugo, he said, the fine down that covers all babies in the womb – nevermind that lanugo is pale and silky, while Joséphine's pelt was coarse and dark. The hair only grew darker, longer and thicker as little Joséphine grew older. Local doctors in the little town of Versoix were perplexed by the case, so they referred the Boisdechênes to the nearest big city, Geneva. Alas, the physicians of Geneva were of no help either. They recommended waiting until little Joséphine was eight years old before attempting any diagnosis or treatment.


The Boisdechênes reluctantly obeyed. They returned to Versoix and raised the little girl the best they could for the next eight years. At the end of the waiting period, they took her back to Geneva for a final diagnosis. The whiskers on Joséphine's face were thicker and coarser than the typical man's beard, the doctors concluded. Any attempt to shave or pluck the beard would only entice it to grow in thicker. Disappointed, the Boisdechênes returned once again to Versoix, where they followed doctors' advice once more and did not attempt to cut or shave little Joséphine's beard. Determined to make the best life for their daughter, beard or no beard, however, they sent her away to boarding school.

Then, Mme. Boisdechêne died, and M. Boisdechêne, unable to care for three young children by himself, brought Joséphine home. Joséphine was just fourteen years old, with a glossy black beard that reached five inches at its longest hair. By now, the extraordinary bearded girl was well-known around Versoix and neighboring villages. Soon, M. Boisdechêne began receiving letters from showmen who wanted to exhibit his daughter.


At first, M. Boisdechêne staunchly refused to let strangers make a show freak out of his daughter. After all, she may have been extraordinary, but she was still his child, and now she was a surrogate mother to her three small siblings. However, the offers became more and more enticing, and at last, in 1849, an unnamed showman from Lyons, France, offered M. Boisdechêne enough money to put his objections to rest. He leased out his farm, sent the other three children to boarding school, and went on tour with Joséphine.

Joséphine and her father toured Switzerland and France, at first with the showman's help and then on their own. In Paris she met with Napoleon III and received a gift of a massive diamond from the soon-to-be emperor (invoking the wrath of the Empress Eugénie, some say). It is said that Joséphine greatly admired him and styled her beard after his, and wore the diamond proudly nestled in her whiskers. While appearing at Troyes, Joséphine – then 18 years old – made the acquaintance of Fortune Clofullia, an aspiring landscape painter, who also had a beard. After just three months' courtship, Joséphine and Fortune were married. He joined his bride and father-in-law on tour, selling his paintings along the way.


From France, Joséphine, Fortune and M. Boisdechéne made their way to London for the Great Universal Exposition. Joséphine was such a success there that they made it their home for over a year. Then, on December 26, 1851, Joséphine gave birth to her first child, a girl whom she named Jane Zelia Fortunne Clofullia. The baby girl, who was not hairy like her mother, proved to be an excellent promotion for Joséphine's show career. She obtained a medical certificate affirming that the baby was really hers, and began appearing with child in arms as "The Bearded Mother". Doubts of Joséphine's womanhood were extinguished by the sight of the new mother cradling her infant daughter. The baby lived just eleven months, but by the time she succumbed, Joséphine was already quite pregnant again. Her second child, a boy named Albert, was born just two months after the baby girl was buried. And, to the Clofullias' delight, Albert was covered in hair just like his mother.


The birth of a hairy baby to a bearded and hairy mother attracted P.T. Barnum's attention, and he paid to have the Clofullias brought to the United States. Soon Mme. Clofullia was a star attraction at the American Museum in New York City, with little Albert billed as "The Infant Esau". Museum-goers loved the hairy mother and baby, or at least most of them did – one, William Charr, believed that Joséphine was really a man in women's clothing, and took Barnum to court for his twenty-five cents' admission plus damages. On the testimony of M. Boisdeschêne, M. Clofullia, and countless doctors, Barnum won the case. (As one might expect, however, it was later revealed that the entire "suit" had been orchestrated by Barnum himself – a tactic he would recycle with almost all his bearded ladies for the remainder of his career.)


Joséphine's death date is usually given as 1875, though it's unknown at present where or how she died.



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