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3 November 2012

Sinaloans may like to brag about having the most beautiful women in Mexico, but one of the most famous daughters of Sinaloa achieved her fame… both during her lifetime and afterwards… as “the world’s ugliest woman”.

Julia Pastrana, born in 1834, somewhere in the Sierra Madres

Francis Buckland, son of the famed paleontologist William Buckland, arranged for some photographs of her to be taken and tried to raise some interest among the doctors of England during Julia’s visit there in 1857. (http://scienceblogs.com/laelaps/2008/04/21/the-nondescript-and-darwins-th/)

… was believed to have been born [...] with hypertrichosis, a condition whereby one is covered with excessive long, straight hair. Julia also had enlarged jowls, a bulbous nose and grotesquely formed teeth. She was four and a half feet tall. As a child she spent time in a Mexican orphanage before becoming a ward of the governor of Sinaloa, Mexico, a period of her life she would refer to as ‘privileged’. Others document her position as one of a ‘servant girl’. In any case, Julia was a positive human being whose peers wondered as to whether she was in fact human.

1854 dates her entrance into the performance world, an arena which she was said to have appreciated and enjoyed being part of. ‘The Marvelous Hybrid or Bear Woman’ was what the banner read at the Gothic Hall on Broadway, NY, NY. Onlookers would gawp at her extraordinary features, but as the performance went on they began to admire her for her elegance and talent, for she was talented. She was an accomplished dancer and had a repertoire of operatic arias under her belt which she would perform to thunderous applause. Media tycoons and scientific minds alike were in attendance and reviews included phrases such as ‘harmonious voice’ as well as ‘terrifically hideous’.

(‘Bear Woman': The Bearded Lady of Mexico)

Although her celebrity was as a horrible looking woman with a lovely voice, those who met her were more taken with her un-freakish and charming personality… happy to relate her travels in the three languages she spoke fluently (Spanish, English and Yaquí), a good cook who enjoyed sewing and knitting.  Alas, her husband, Theodore Lent, was something of a money-grubbing cad.  And more than a bit of a ghoul:

…From 1856 on, Theodore Lent was her impresario and soon also husband. They toured the USA, Europe, and Russia. Julia Pastrana was displayed for audiences who paid to see “The Ape Woman” or “The Indescribable” sing and dance. On several occasions, she was also examined and described by researchers.

In 1860, Julia Pastrana died a few days after having given birth to her and Theodore Lent’s son. The child also passed away soon after being born. Theodore Lent sold the bodies of his wife and son to the University of Moscow, where they were embalmed, before he bought them back and continued touring with the two bodies for display. Theodore Lent married another woman, Marie Bartel, who had a condition similar to Julia Pastrana’s, and included her in the display as Julia Pastrana’s little sister, under the name of Zenora. Some time after his death, Marie Bartel sold the bodies of Julia Pastrana and her son (both bodies had been on loan for a certain period), and they were displayed in a series of different cities in the following years.

Somewhere in the course of her travels, Julia lost her beard.

In 1921, the two embalmed bodies were bought by Haakon Lund, manager of the biggest funfair in Norway at the time. Julia Pastrana and her son were then displayed periodically up till the 1950s. When Lund’s funfair put them on display again in 1970, there were strong reactions in the newspapers. A USA tour followed, before another display in Norway in 1973. The remains were then rented out to a Swedish funfair, which led to a ban on the display  by the Swedish authorities. The remains were put in storage in Groruddalen in Oslo in 1976, and during a burglary performed by adolescents, the arm was torn off the embalmed remains of Julia Pastrana. The police took her remains with them, while the remains of her son, reportedly badly damaged, were seemingly discarded.

The two quoted paragraphs above are from the official statement by the The Norwegian National Committee for the Evaluation of Research on Human Remains, 4 June, 2012   as part of recent negotiations between the Kingdom of Norway and the United Mexican Republic on behalf of the University of Oslo (which had ended up with what was left of Julia’s corpse, for display in a proposed medical museum) and the Autonomous University of Sinaloa… the latter then turning to the  Sinaloan State Department of Culture, which has made arrangements with the Roman Catholic Parish of San Felipe y Santiago in Sinaloa, Sinaloa:  the Norwegian National Committee… having duly considered the matter, concluding that there is no reason Julia should be denied a Catholic funeral and burial in her homeland.

The viewing having gone on much longer than really necessary, I am pretty certain this will be a closed casket service.

One Comment leave one →
  1. locojhon permalink
    3 November 2012 7:57 am

    What a story, about an apparently-amazing person, and those who were influential in her unimaginable life. In part, a compelling story of life’s unfairness and inherent genetic cruelties, man’s inhumanity to man, and counterbalanced with her dignified response to it.
    And finally concluding with an ending that made me laugh–am still chuckling…
    Thanks for the ride!
    locoto

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