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14 July 2011

Malvina Emily Perry (1881 - 1934) bearded lady, strong woman, ships captain, wife

Malvina was born at sea, on board the Oliver Mitchell, her father the captain, and her mother a North American aboriginal. She lived on the ship until age 15 when she eloped with one of the sailors, Edmund Perry. Both fathers found the couple and had their marriage annulled.

For five years Malvina refused to speak to her father, until they met by chance in New York. He appointed her the first mate on the Oliver Mitchell. However she had a falling out with the second mate, her brother George, and ran away again.

By this time she had a luxuriant beard, and was able to find circus work. Although only 5’4” (1.6m) she was able to easily lift 150 pounds (68 kg) above her head. She also did an act wherein the circus strongman broke a four-inch (10 cm) thick block of concrete over her head with a mallet. This was controversial, and in 1909 a court in Trinidad, Colorado issued a ruling that she was not to do it anymore. Instead she broke kitchen chairs over head. She disliked circus work, and only returned to it when she needed money.

She had four husbands in total. With her third, she had three daughters. However after seven years, he left her complaining that he was embarrassed in that she looked too much like a man.

She was reunited with Edmund Perry, married him again, but he was killed in the Great War.

In 1919 Malvina’s father died and left her the Oliver Mitchell. She had earned her captain’s license two years before, and took the ship to sea. She developed a relationship with one of her sailors, Joseph Cheelsman, and they became engaged. However the ship sank off the Yucatan in 1924, and they were separated.

Malvina lived in Detroit for a while, where she was brought to court for non-support of her son Robert. The judge accused her of perjury for claiming to be female, and she punched him and was imprisoned for contempt.

Malvina and Robert ended up in Baltimore. They accepted the hospitality of a Mr. Becker, but the situation ended in court after she refused his advances, and he claimed that she was a man. The police matron at the court examined Malvina, and declared her to be a true woman.

The newspaper story of this enabled Cheelsman to find her again, and they were married and lived with Robert, until he disappeared with all the household goods while she was at the Chicago Fair. Malvina returned to working as a bearded lady and strong woman on the Baltimore Waterfront.

Malvina died at age 53, confessing on her deathbed that she was a 'man', Melvin. This was confirmed by an autopsy.

An unusual tale.  As Malvina always lived as female, I assume that she felt that she was a woman.  The inspection by the police matron can be dismissed as cursory.  The deathbed 'confession' because in 1934 there were no public concepts of transsexual or transgender.   But why the beard?  Most bearded women in the days before electrolysis, who did not work in circuses, shaved.  The beard got her circus work, but she was ambivalent about working in circuses.

Why did her father treat her as a woman from the start?  Why was an autopsy, rather than a simple look under her clothes, required to confirm her sex?  This sounds like she had some kind of intersex condition.


  1. Hi Zagria,

    I'm researching Malvina and I was wondering if you have any other sources besides the newspaper articles. I've had a lot of trouble finding her. A lot of the information here doesn't appear in the articles.

    Thanks so much!

  2. The problem seems to be that Elizabeth Anderson, my major source, has removed her article from the web.


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