Ethel was in her own troupe before meeting her ex-husband Dell. During her performances, she would surround herself with the prettiest girls she could find in a dance routine, only to reveal herself and have the audience laugh with her at her deformity.
When she met Dell Toledo, he convinced her to do solo acts instead of moving to Paris with her troupe. He convinced her that the upper class would rather see her do cultured acts than comedy, and changed her performances to reciting Shakespeare on stage, which turned out to be a horrible failure.
At one point they were penniless, unemployed, and Ethel was carrying their unborn child. Out of desperation for money, Dell arranged a show and charged tickets to let people watch Ethel give birth to their son, Jimmy, who was born with deformed fingers. Later on, while Jimmy was crying, Dell tried to kill the baby, Ethel caught him and told him to leave, and she would raise her son on her own.
Personality and Appearance
Her deformity is simply the fact that she has a beard. Other than that, Ethel appears normal; rather short and stout, with a thick Pittsburgh accent.
Ethel is a very headstrong and respected woman among the Freak Show performers, although she claims no outsider ever treated her as the woman she is. She's Elsa's second in command, and she tolerates no disrespect to either herself or Elsa. Even when Elsa admits her selfish reasons of adopting Bette and Dot, Ethel stands by her. With a strong maternal instinct, Ethel is willing to do anything to protect her son. She even nearly killed Dell when he tried to harm the infant Jimmy.
Ethel is introduced along with the other freaks as a member of Fräulein Elsa's Cabinet of Curiosities. For fourteen years, Ethel was the bearded lady of the freak show, and the second in command and friend to Elsa Mars. When Bette and Dot Tattler, a pair of conjoined twins, were brought too the freak show to be the new headliners. Ethel was concerned by Elsa's actions of bringing them there; whether they were brought for the good of the show or to be apart of the carnival family. She was put in charge of the twins; making sure they eat their food and she also described Elsa's rescue of her from a drunk tank, where she was reunited with her son, Jimmy.
Ethel went into Elsa's tent to discuss the twins, Elsa confesses to Ethel that she brought the twins into the show to draw crowds, not for the family of carnies, but for her own glory. Ethel agrees that Elsa is gifted enough to be a true star, though her face shows concern when Elsa isn't looking.
Ethel observes her ex-husband Dell Toledo arriving, a trailer (bearing Desiree) in tow. While Desiree was gone from the trailer, Ethel takes the opportunity to visit Dell. She tells him that he is not welcome there, but Dell claims that Elsa deputized him as her new second in command.
Ethel was present when the police searches the camp for a dead officer and found the dead officer's badge under Meep's bed, and she watches as the officer put Meep in his car and drove away. Ethel later wakens a drunk Jimmy who is distraught at what happened to Meep and blaming himself. Ethel assumes the police roughed Jimmy up. Ethel says that Dell is bad news and tells him stay away from him. Jimmy intends to confess to free Meep, which confused Ethel. Moments later, a truck dumps Meep's corpse at the foot of the freak show. As Jimmy wails, Ethel and the others crowd around him in comfort.
Ethel finds out from Dr. Bonham that she has cirrhosis, despite years of sobriety. He informs her that she has roughly six months to a year left to live. He advises her to keep her meat intake to a minimum and to maintain her abstention from alcohol. His compassion moves her to tears, because with her beard, no doctor has ever treated her with respect before.
Ethel cites the legend of Edward Mordrake, to Bette and Dot and tells them how freaks like them can't perform on Halloween because if they do, he will appear and take them away.
A drunken Ethel appears to Dell, she tells him to never tell Jimmy that he is his father, but guide him. She also tells him that she is dying.
Ethel is in her trailer and she begins to see ghosts, but then Mordrake himself appears, confirming the reality of the superstition. He says that his second face will know if she speaks falsely, and he bids her to sit with him and answer his questions. He wants the story of her fall from grace, which she gives: she once had a popular burlesque show and fell in love with Dell, who became her manager and advised her to leave the troupe and go solo. Dell also tells her to stop her comedy burlesque act and do a drama act reciting Shakespeare, believing that the upper-class want culture, not comedy. The act goes horribly and Ethel is ruined. However, the demon face wants to hear of her darker, deeper shame. Ethel admits that she and Dell were, at one point, poor and unemployed, and that she was carrying Dell's son at the time. Out of desperation, Dell sold tickets for a live show of Jimmy's birth. Moments after Jimmy was born, people ridiculed his deformed hands and Dell offered people the chance to hold the "monster baby" for money. Ethel laments that Jimmy has known nothing but exploitation from his first breath. Mordrake is moved by her story, and other ghosts arrive and look on. Ethel bows her head, telling Mordrake that she is ready to be taken. The demon head whispers "Not the one..." and she looks up to discover that Mordrake and the other ghosts have gone.
After Jimmy fingers Desiree with his deformed fingers, causing her to bleed, Ethel rushes Desiree to Dr. Bonham. There, Ethel helps Desiree into a hospital gown, and Desiree bids her to stay when the doctor arrives, as she is nervous about visiting a doctor for the first time.
Ethel expresses her concern that Elsa's departure and Bette and Dot's disappearance will affect the show's line-up and possibly ruin the freak show. Elsa is upset that some freaks do not believe her lie that the twins abandoned her while she took them dress-shopping. Elsa calls them "ungrateful", but Ethel assures her of the freaks' loyalty by telling her of their plans for Elsa's upcoming birthday week.
Ethel waits for Elsa with a slice of cake. Elsa muses that they are a kind family, revealing her unhappy childhood and lack of a loving family. Elsa says Ethel is the sister she deserved. Ethel advises her that no-one trusts Elsa anymore, after the series of calamities. She swears that if she discovers that Elsa has lied about the twins, that she will kill Elsa herself.
An ailing Ethel is rushed to an appointment with Dr. Bonham by Desiree, but discovers that his office has been closed for business. They enter anyway and find a woman packing away the doctor's belongings. The woman claims to be his daughter from Boston. She explains accusingly that her father killed himself after crushing his own fingers with a hammer and demands that they leave.
After Eve is almost killed by Dell, Ethel helps ice her knuckles. Ethel insists that they kill Dell, but Jimmy thinks they should just demand he leave the freak show before doing matters of killing him. Ethel agrees.
Later that night, Elsa was eating dinner with Stanley in her tent. Elsa confides her troubles with the twins and attempts to employ Stanley to find Dot's surgeon to separate them. He counters by proposing a more permanent solution. Killing them. Ethel, while serving dessert, overhears everything.
Ethel is suspicious about Elsa's reaction to the death of Ma Petite. In Elsa's quarters, Elsa grieves for Ma Petite, but Ethel is not so mournful. Ethel tells her longtime friend that she almost believed Elsa's "crocodile tears" were sincere. Elsa slaps her, and Ethel retorts that all Elsa cares about is the roar of the crowd and hates someone stealing her spotlight. Elsa blames Ethel's behavior on drinking and orders her out. Fourteen years of friendship and history have made Ethel realize that she dreads her best friend. Elsa spurns Ethel's accusations of murder, overturning her table in anger. Ethel reminds Elsa that she's not their savior, she's their surrogate mother. Further, Ethel shares that she overheard Elsa's cold conspiracy with Stanley to murder the twins. This killed any remaining affection the bearded lady had for Elsa. Elsa wants to bring the twins for testimony, but Ethel has sent them to safety. Ethel shoots Elsa in one of her legs, leaving a hole through the prosthetic. Ethel is shocked, as she had not been aware that Elsa had an artificial limb. Elsa chuckles at her reaction and tells her the story of how she became a freak. After her story, Elsa thinks that Ethel intends to kill her, but Ethel instead intends to kill herself, feeling that she has nothing to live for. Quickly their interplay shows changes in plans: Elsa loiters by the drinks. Ethel suspects that Elsa might try to poison her and turns the gun on her onetime friend, bur Elsa turns and expertly throws a knife into her would-be killer's forehead. Ethel falls and dies.
After Elsa dies, Ethel along with the other departed freaks forgive Elsa and they welcome her with open arms to the afterlife.
- Ethel is the second character in American Horror Story portrayed by Kathy Bates, the first being Delphine LaLaurie in Coven. The third is Iris, in Hotel, and the fourth and fifth is The Butcher and Agnes Mary Winstead in Roanoke.
- Ethel was a lover of poetry; Emily Dickinson was her favorite.
- She speaks in a thick Pittsburgh accent.
- Ethel is Kathy Bates' favorite character she has played on American Horror Story.
- To Bette and Dot Tattler: "Everything you've heard is true. All that has been advertised is here, under this tent."
- To Dell: "You wouldn't know a real woman from a goat's ass."
- Recalling her youth: "I was the biggest thing to come out of Baltimore since Wallis Simpson."
- To Dr. Bonham: "You know what, Doc? I ain't crying 'cause you told me I'm gonna die. I'm crying 'cause you're the first doctor to ever treat me with respect. I just c-can't help thinking my whole life might have gone different if I'd met you sooner."