Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Strange Tale of Julia Pastrana

One of the saddest stories in the history of human prodigies is that of Julia Pastrana, the so-called "Female Nondescript". Born in western Mexico around 1834, Julia was a "Digger" Indian who, fully grown, stood just four and a half feet tall. (Since "Digger" is a blanket term applied by European settlers to any indigenous group that ate roots, regardless of tribal affiliation, it is impossible to know exactly what culture Julia came from.) She was covered in black hair and possessed a full beard and mustache and all the telltale facial features of hypertrichosis, as well as the usual second row of teeth. As a young girl she became separated from her tribe and was sent to live with Pedro Sanchez, the governor of the state of Sinaloa to work as a servant. Dr. Jan Bondeson, in his book A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities – probably the most complete biography of Julia Pastrana to date – reports that she was "ill used" by Sanchez, and at the age of about twenty she left his employ, determined to return to her tribal homeland.

During her journey home she was intercepted by an American named Rates, who promised her great riches if she would let him take her on a tour of the United States. She spent about three years on the American dime museum circuit, submitting to examinations by prominent medical men who proclaimed her to be everything from a bear-human hybrid to an orangutan-human hybrid to a typical specimen of a Digger Indian. In fact, it was even claimed that, as Digger Indians go, this one was exceptionally tall, beautiful and human-like. A museum advertisement from 1857 proclaimed, "The Bear Woman is a curious and interesting little lady, whose entire face and person are covered with thick black hair. She has also a resemblance to the Orang-Outang, and in fact it would seem that she is half Monkey. Julia was found in Mexico, in a cave with animals of different kinds, and is pronounced by Dr. Mott, of New York, a Hybrid creature. During her exhibition, the Bear Woman entertains her visitors by singing pretty little romances, and by Dancing a Highland Fling, Polka, &c. Julia is very good natured, she behaves herself like a little lady and wherever she is exhibited she becomes the pet of all ladies and gentlemen, and by her strange appearance in a glistening Spanish costume, she highly amuses the children."

Julia's luxuriant costumes and sprightly dances did little to hide the sad truth, however. Her succession of showmen – first Rates, then a J.W. Beach, and lastly a Mr. Theodore Lent - kept the little woman in seclusion, fearing that if the public saw her in the street they might not pay to see her on stage. Thus, her worldview was markedly stunted, despite her normal intelligence and great capacity for emotion. Though onstage she was costumed like a princess in her spectacular gowns and glittering jewels, spectators came not to admire her beauty or talent but to gawk in revulsion at what soon became known as "the ugliest woman in the world". Friends – and she was permitted to have a few of these – recalled that Julia spoke like a child and naïvely trusted almost anyone who behaved kindly towards her. Lonely and miserable, Julia wanted nothing more than to leave her glamorous life and return to Mexico. Theodore Lent, her manager, knew he must take a bold step to secure his livelihood. He asked her to marry him.

Knowing nothing of such real-world issues as love, other than what she had read in books, Julia accepted his offer. Soon she became pregnant; perhaps Lent was trying to have two freaks for the price of one. Julia went into labor in Moscow on March 20, 1860, accompanied by three doctors. The difficult delivery, complicated by Julia's tiny stature, caused irreparable injuries to both mother and child. Wounded by the doctors' forceps, Julia developed peritonitis. Theodore Lent, Jr., who was covered in black hair just like his mother, began to suffocate soon after birth and, despite the doctors' best efforts to revive him, clung to life for just three days. Julia died after five days, on March 25. Her last words, according to author Jan Bondeson: "I die happy, knowing I have been loved for my own sake." (Frederick Drimmer, in his 1973 book Very Special People, relates that she said the "he loves me for my own sake" line on the morning of her marriage, to dispel malicious rumors to the contrary.)

The loss of his wife and son was only a temporary setback for the scheming Lent, however. He began searching for a mortician to embalm the bodies of Julia and Theodore, Jr., for future display, and soon learned of a Professor Sokoloff, right there in Moscow, who was said to be the greatest embalmer in the world. So well-preserved were Sokoloff's corpses that they looked like wax dummies rather than real, dead humans. It was said that Sokoloff used a special secret formula that prevented withering of the flesh; however, the truth was that he simply stuffed the bodies, like hunting trophies, and was exceptionally good at hiding the seams.

Dressed in one of her finest Spanish dresses, Julia Pastrana was soon on tour again, with Theodore, Jr., at her side, wearing a miniature sailor suit and mounted on a pedestal. An English naturalist named Buckland, who examined the stuffed corpses, wrote, "There was no unpleasantness, or disagreeable concomitant, about the figure; it was almost difficult to imagine that the mummy was really that of a human being, and not an artificial model."

Throughout the 1870s the two hairy corpses continued to earn considerable income for Lent. Then, around 1880, he added an extra attraction to his show: a second, living bearded lady. This newcomer was Marie Bartels, a native of Karlsbad, Germany, but Lent rechristened her Zenora Pastrana, sister of the famous Julia Pastrana. Marie was approached by Lent when she was eighteen years old, and wooed with candies and promises of world travel in exchange for her hand in marriage. The bearded girl agreed. Lent taught his new wife to ride bareback for their show. And, far from being horrified by appearing onstage with her dead "sister" and "nephew", Zenora preferred it to appearing without them – at least this way, people would know she and Julia were not the same person.

Lent began suffering from spells of dementia not long after his marriage to Zenora. One eyewitness saw him tear up money and throw it into the River Neva in St. Petersburg – surely an act of an irrational man. In 1884 he died of "brain disease" (likely syphilis). Zenora remarried and lived until at least 1900.

Julia's and Theodore, Jr.'s bodies experienced a comeback in the 1970s, when the morbid artifacts, housed in a natural history museum in Oslo, were sent to the United States to appear on Gooding’s Million Dollar Midway. They also were shown throughout Norway and Sweden. They were last seen intact in 1975; later, vandals broke into a museum where the bodies were on exhibition, broke off Julia’s arm in order to steal her dress, and badly marred her face. Sawdust spilled from the gash, revealing the 100-year-old "secret" of Sokoloff's embalming technique. The tiny corpse of Theodore, Jr., was thrown into a ditch behind the museum, and was eaten by mice.

Julia’s corpse, in its current pitiful condition, still has not been laid to rest; it resides in storage in the Oslo museum and is still available for viewing by medical professionals. A photograph of the body as it appears today can be seen in the 1999 documentary Freaks Uncensored!.

What has become the most famous image of Julia Pastrana (above) is actually a photograph of her corpse, taken around 1890. Her crucifix necklace hides the large seam up the center of her chest.


Anonymous said...

Similar stories can be told about an aboriginal Australian and also a western outlaw.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post. This woman will now finally be buried in Mexico:

Renee Hassani said...

Strange indeed. Really creeps me out but I don't know what makes me want to keep on reading articles about her. I cannot imagine how she looks like upon being laid to rest. Restless corpse indeed.

Anonymous said...

finally has been buried in México

Betty Darmohray said...

So sad that these individuals were not loved as one should be. I hope that they find the love they deserved in the arm's of our heavenly father, as it is clear that they did not receive it here on earth. Even after death.

Anonymous said...

Yo pienso ke el esposo de ella nada mas se caso con ella para poder comercialuzar con ella y con su hijo que poca Madre.

Anonymous said...

The story about the baby doesn't add up. That photo shows a child much older than a newborn. even if you stretched out a newborn body into an unnatural standing position, its legs would be much smaller in comparison to the torso.

And if you see the size of that child, there is no way that child came out of that woman a few days before death.

Wade G. Burck said...

That is a great point, and I had not noticed until you pointed it out. I wouldn't believe anything on a lithograph or a side show poster, but a photo(before photoshop) is awful accurate. Any thoughts? New born to difficult to "stuff?" Easy, given the times, to acquire an other corpse, possibly already "prepped" and good to go?


Joy Z Clark said...

The lady was only 4 foot and if her baby was regular size he would appear disproportionately large next to his mother.
This article has brought me to tears.
I hope Julia did feel loved and appreciated. We can see the full picture and suspect she was horribly used by her husband, but with her limited world view she may have believed she was loved for herself. That is what I hope.
May she rest in peace after being afforded a dignified mass and burial.
RIP Julia and your wee son. (Was the wee boy given a name?)

Joy Z Clark said...

These pix appear to show mother and son after death and before the indignity of the *stuffing with sawdust* by an embalmer at the behest of Lent.

For me, it is hard to believe that Lent loved Julia in the sense we understand unconditional, true and romantic love and adoration today. Love to me is about wanting the very best for your partner, not using them for financial gain. Love does not dishonour your partner and son after they have died in such a way.
To me the tragedy of Julia is not how she appeared physically but how she was used by a man who purported to love her.