Let’s face it – the Victorians had an insatiable curiosity for all things freakish. Such was the case of a woman who was variously referred to as “Bear Woman”, “Ape Woman”, “Baboon Lady” or more perhaps aptly and succinctly, but nonetheless cruelly, the “world’s ugliest woman”. After she died following childbirth in 1860, her body was mummified (at the request of her entpreneurially-minded husband, Theodore Lent) and put on display as the “The Embalmed Nondescript”.
Julia Pastrana was an indigenous Mexican believed to have been born in the early l830’s in the state of Sinoloa. Born with two genetic conditions, hypertrichosis and gingival hyperplasia (the former a condition exhibiting abnormal amounts of body hair and the latter a condition marked by an exaggerated and overgrown jaw resulting from excessive fibrous connective tissue), she was purported to have been discovered by a woman who had lost her way after she and her friends hiked up into the mountains to bathe in 1829.
As explained in a newspaper account in 1855 (which may or may not have been factually accurate, given that era and its penchant for sensationalism):
In 1829 several women went up from Copala (a little town just at the edge of the mountains) to a small pond above, on the side of the mountain, to bathe, after their custom; on their returning home they missed Mrs. Espinosa, one of their companions; all endeavors to find her proved fruitless, and it was believed that she was drowned, until six years afterwards a Ranchero, who was hunting for his cattle on this mountain, heard a voice in a cave, which he took to be a Mexican woman. He went down to Copala and got a company of men, who went up and surrounded the cave, and by great stratagem succeeded in recovering Mrs. E. She stated that she had lost her way, and had wandered to the top of the mountain, when she fell into the hands of these Indians, who had ever since kept her shut up in this cavern. She expressed a great liking for this child, which was then about two years old; she having nursed her from her infancy. Her mother died when she was only a few days old.1
Mrs. Espinosa took the child home and christened her Julia Pastrana, naming herself godmother and her husband as Julia’s godfather. Julia was later given over to Sinaloa’s governor Pedro Sanchez. She remained with his family until April 1854 when she, expressing unhappiness with the family’s treatment of her, decided to return to the mountains from whence she came. Julia was later found by a man referred to as “M. Rates” who convinced her to return with him to the United States for purposes of exhibition (or exploitation it would seem).
According to the newspaper article cited above, Mr. Rates asked a friend named “F. Sepulveda” to accompany Julia for protection and later return her safely to Governor Sanchez. They arrived in New Orleans in October of 1854 and departed for New York to join P.T. Barnum’s enterprise. Cold weather, however, prevented them for staying in New York and they returned to the more moderate climes of New Orleans in February 1855. There her exhibitions were managed by J.W. Beach.
Dr. Alex Mott undertook a study of Julia and the Plain Dealer published his certificate:
Sir: – To naturalists alone we leave the task of solving the enigma concerning the origin of Julia Pastrana, the “Semi Human Indian,” which would have puzzled the Sphynx. From her uncouth gait it may be conjectured that the mysterious animal moves as if an elongation of the spinal column should have taken place, producing a tail, which in consequence of humanity predominating, has been denied.
She is a perfect woman – a rational creature endowed with speech which no monster ever possessed. She is therefore a Hybrid, wherein the nature of woman predominates over the brute – the Ourang Outang. Altogether she is one of the most extraordinary beings of the present day.2
Dr. Mott’s assessment apparently lent credence to the promotional headlines thereafter used as she toured the United States and later Asia and Europe, ones that called her “The Misnomered Bear Woman” and others billing her (as Mott implied) as being half human, half ape. Some thought her to have been a distinct species, although Samuel Kneeland of the Boston Society of Natural History believed she was of the human species and of Indian descent (which she most certainly was). Francis Buckland called her “simply a deformed Mexican Indian woman.”3
The long straight black hair which covered her body, in conjunction with her enlarged ears and nose, indeed made her look like an “ape woman”. Despite her startling features and newspapers which referred to her as “this singular and detestably ugly specimen of humanity”4, Julia was nonetheless cultured. Buckland noted she had a sweet voice with great taste in music, could dance and speak three languages.5
Still, the Boston Herald, for one, described her rather crudely:
She is of the tribe known as the Opate Indians. They live on roots, wear no clothing, their forehead and face are thickly covered with hair, and are perfectly harmless. Julia Pastrana, as this specimen is called, is about five feet high. She waddles when she walks, has an enormously large mouth, and no upper teeth. She is very full in the bosom, and the shape of her body is not ungraceful. Physicians concur in the opinion that she belongs to a distinct species of the human family. It is well enough to see her once. She is about 22 years old, is playful and childlike, albeit there are few who fondle her.6
Whatever became of “F. Sepulveda” is unclear (that is if the story of her discovery by Mrs. Espinosa, which some believe was at least somewhat exaggerated, is true), but as Julia traveled through America “holding her levees” she garnered much attention. In November of 1855 she married Theodore Lent in Baltimore. The marriage simultaneously resulted in a lawsuit, questioning whether she belonged to her husband, her guardian or her lessee.7
Nevertheless, Julia and her promoter husband continued to travel throughout the country and at a cost of only 25 cents “it [was] therefore in the power of every one to take a peep at her.”8 By the summer of 1857 she was making headlines across the pond in England where she was billed as “The Nondescript: Grand and Novel Attraction”. One newspaper provided a lengthy and detailed description of Julia and noted that although she was quite the curiosity, still she was the most singular . . . and pleasing specimen of humanity in the world”9 who would nonetheless entertain audiences with fancy dances and singing English and Spanish romantic tunes.
Julia continued to tour abroad with various entertainment troupes and so-called “monster shows” — “this most revolting, hideous, baboonish female [was] creating in Europe a positive excitement.”10 The following year Julia became pregnant with her first child while touring in Russia. Doctors there worried whether her small frame and narrow hips could endure what would most certainly be a difficult childbirth.
Indeed, it was a difficult birth as obstetricians employed the use of forceps to deliver her baby. By four o’clock on the afternoon of March 20, 1860 her son was delivered. She had hoped he would be like his father, but his body was much like hers – deformed and covered with hair. The newborn struggled and lived only thirty-five hours. Five days later Julia succumbed as a result of the onset of peritonitis.
It was then that Theodore’s intentions all along became apparent it seems. He had shepherded his wife’s successful career and had reaped considerable financial gain. What to do now that she and their son had both died? It seems that Theodore likely struck a deal with Professor Sukolov of Moscow University to embalm the remains. After the procedure their bodies were placed in the anatomical museum at the university, and as expected, became yet another sensation.
Amazingly, the mummies looked very much life-like, and when Theodore saw how well preserved they were and how well the exhibition was received, he took steps to legally reclaim ownership. Through the American consul he presented a marriage certificate and reclaimed the mummified corpses. What to do now?
By early 1862 the mummies of Julia and her son were back in England and newspapers were calling Theodore what he most likely was all along – a speculator.11 Julia’s mummy was dressed in a dancer’s dress she had made herself; her son’s mummy was placed on a pedestal next to her dressed in a sailor suit.
Francis Buckland, a naturalist, was curious enough to want a closer look. He had viewed mummies previously, yet found himself “exceedingly surprised” at what he observed:
The figure was dressed in the ordinary exhibition costume used in life, and placed erect upon the table. The limbs were by no means shrunken or contracted, the arms, chest, &c. retaining their former roundness and well-formed appearance. The face was marvelous; exactly like an exceedingly good portrait in wax, but it was not formed of wax. The closest examination convinced me that it was the true skin, prepared in some wonderful way; the huge deformed lips and the squat nose remained exactly as in life; and the beard and luxuriant growth of soft black hair on and about the face were in no respect changed from their former appearance.
There was no unpleasantness, or disagreeable concomitant, about the figure; and it was almost difficult to imagine that the mummy was really that of a human being, and not an artificial model.12
Buckland thought it coincidental that Julia had been embalmed in some ways similar to her native tribe who took trophies of their enemies by taking the skin of the whole head (and the hair), and “by some process, known only to themselves, reduce[d] it to about the size of a man’s fist.”13 These likenesses appeared as “miniature Aztecs” and would be displayed over a fireplace. Buckland offered to purchase the mummies but could not afford even the reduced asking price. He always wondered what became of the much-admired specimens.
By this time, however, the public may have been less enthralled with the curiosity of the very life-likeness of Julia and her son. By early 1865 Theodore had found a “replacement”, a sixteen-year-old whom he claimed to be Julia’s sister Zenora. “Zenora” may have in some ways resembled Julia, but was thought to have been Swedish and afflicted with hirsutism (females having male-like hair growth). Eventually, Theodore more or less gave up the mummies of his wife and son, signing way those rights to a Vienna museum.
Theodore and Zenora returned to Saint Petersburg in the 1880’s, but Theodore was later afflicted with a mental disorder and placed in an asylum where he died in 1884. Zenora retrieved the mummies and for years they were exhibited around Europe. In the early 1920’s a carnival operator in Norway (Hans Lund) purchased them as part of an exhibit of other life-size human figures. Eventually, however, those exhibits became passe.
Descendants of Hans Lund made the acquaintance of Milton Kaufman, an American carnival operator, and subsequently the mummies were brought to America and exhibited in the summer of 1972. Julia, still wearing the red dress, had begun to show signs of deterioration. Now in a different era, most in the United States doubted the specimens were real. The Lunds returned to Sweden with the mummies and proceeded to exhibit them again, only to be met with controversy.
Some people, including the Catholic Church, believed the remains should be properly buried. After Hans died in 1976 the family put the mummies in storage. Teenagers broke into the facility twice and the mummies disappeared. Meanwhile, the Lunds didn’t realize they were missing. A doctor by the name of Jan Bondeson expressed an interest in seeing the mummies in 1990 after reading Frederick Drimmer’s book, Very Special People. Promotions for the book in the 1970’s touted: “Julia Pastrana was to ugliness what Marilyn Monroe was to loveliness.”
One of Bondeson’s colleagues thought he might know where the mummies were and eventually they were located in a basement in Sweden. By this time there wasn’t much left and her son was missing (probably eaten by mice, Bondeson surmised). Still, Bondeson took samples and carefully diagnosed Julia’s condition, believing hers to have been perhaps the most extreme in history.14
After Bondeson published his findings, calls for ways to provide Julia with a proper burial and a measure of restored dignity began in earnest. Some wanted to continue to exhibit her remains, but eventually her remains were buried on February 12, 2013 in Sinaloa de Leyva, Mexico. After more than a century and a half, Julia Pastrana had returned home.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2016.
- Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 18 Jul 1855, p. 3
- Francis Trevelyan Buckland, Curiosities of Natural History, Volume 2 (London: 1868), 42.
- Boston Herald, 18 Sep 1855, p. 4
- Buckland, p. 42
- Boston Herald, 18 Sep 1855, p. 4
- Terre Haute Wabash Express, 12 Dec 1855, p. 2
- Semi-Weekly Standard (Raleigh, North Carolina), 09 Feb 1956, p. 3
- Morning Chronicle (London), 03 Jul 1857, p. 1
- Edgefield Advertiser (Edgefield, SC), 02 Jun 1858, p. 2
- Boston Daily Advertiser, 17 Feb 1862, p. 2
- Buckland, p. 41
- Buckland, p. 42
- Additional Resource: Behold! The Heartbreaking, Hair-Raising Tale Of Freak Show Star Julia Pastrana, Mexico’s Monkey Woman