Local News

May 6, 2012

Find sparks research on Sutherland Sisters

Many years ago, when I was in my 20s, my grandmother gave me a box of pictures, postcards and other memorabilia. Being a busy mom at the time, I put it away with other keepsakes and hadn't thought about it much until I rediscovered it this spring.

Tired from cleaning closets and sorting boxes, I got myself a cup of tea and took a break, deciding it was high time I looked through this box.

Among the vintage family photographs (thankfully, many of them were identified) were pictures of some of the Barnum & Bailey Sideshow people. A photo of seven women with hair to the floor piqued my interest, so, to the Internet I went.

The well-coiffed women are the Sutherland Sisters — Sarah, Victoria, Isabella, Grace, Naomi, Mary and Dora — who ranged in age from 18 to 36. There are many stories written about them and their climb from near poverty to extravagant wealth and back to poverty again.


In the April 1982 issue of Yankee magazine, writers Dianne L. Sammarco and Kathleen L. Rounds said the family came from Vermont, where their father, Fletcher Sutherland, was rather poor. Their mother, Mary, was gifted with musical skills, and their daughters were great performers.

Mom concocted an ointment to deal with the amazingly thick hair that all the daughters were graced with. However, the mixture had a foul smell, and this seemed to put the family in an unfavorable position with the community.

Their father, looking for a way to dig himself out of poverty, decided to audition the girls for the Barnum & Bailey Circus, figuring that the singing voices of seven sisters would make him a wealthy man. However, it didn't quite turn out like that.

With hair that reached the floor, the sisters attracted the notice of many men. Henry Bailey, nephew of the circus co-owner, married Naomi in 1885. He figured that men like to look at the girls and that they also lose their hair at an alarming rate, and the combination was worth much more money selling hair-growth ointment. Henry and Fletcher revamped Mother Mary's hair solution, bottled and sold it as the Seven Sutherland Sisters' Hair Grower. They also sold related products such as scalp cleaners, anti-dandruff lotion and hair coloring.

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