Who was Julia Pastrana?
Julia Pastrana was a Mexican woman born c.1830-34 in the Sierra Madre region. Julia suffered from a disease known as hypertrichosis, among other conditions. Standing at no more than 4ft 5 inches, Julia’s face and body were covered in hair, and her overgrown gums cause her mouth to protrude in a grotesque manner. There is much uncertainty surrounding her early years, with rumours stating she was sold by her parents or abandoned in the wilderness before being stumbled upon and rescued. Eventually she was adopted by Governor Sánchez in Sinaloa and worked as his maid before leaving his employment in 1854. The ambiguity of her early years is likely due to suppression of the truth by the freak show circuit who wanted to make audacious claims about her origins (including that she was a ‘unholy union of man and beast’).
Life as the ‘Bear Woman’ or the ‘Baboon Lady’
Julia was likely recruited to become a member of a ‘Freak Show’ by an eager entrepreneur, and she began to tour under the showman Theodore Lent who she would marry in 1855. She went on tour in numerous cities across America before debuting in London in 1857, all the while under the direction of her husband who used her body for profit in both life and, eventually, in death. Control was likely the reason Lent married her, as seen when P.T. Barnum met her in 1857. She would not remove her veil for him until her husband entered the room. Pastrana went on to tour across Europe under the supervision of her husband, making sure she performed on stage, submitted to examination, and posed at social functions.
Death and embalming
Julia died in childbirth in 1860 along side her baby son who had also inherited her condition. She was in Moscow at the time, and Lent sold her body (as well as their baby’s) to a Professor Sokolov of the Anatomical Institute at the university so he could embalm them. The embalming technique used by Soklov was a success, with many praising his experimentation to benefit anatomical collections. His method was thought to blend aspects of both mummification and taxidermy, with the whole process taking around 6 months. The colour and texture of the corpses gave them a wax work like appearance, and images of her dead naked body and her son’s during the embalming process were published for academic research. Lent reclaimed the bodies in 1862 and began to tour with them as ‘curiosities’. Her display in death continued to allow her husband to profit from her body, in death it was easier for the public to view her body and discuss her openly in medical fields- she had become more object than person as she could be displayed for however long Lent required.
What happened to the bodies?
Lent went on to marry another ‘bearded lady’ called Marie Bartel, presenting her as Zenora Pastrana, the little sister of Julia. Like Julia, Marie performed on tour for her husband before he was committed to an asylum in Russia after he began to lose his mind. He died shortly afterwards, and Marie sold the bodies. They were displayed at numerous exhibits across Europe for years to come. The bodies were touring up until as recently as the 1970’s until Sweden banned the exhibition in 1973 putting a stop to the display of the corpses. A break-in to the storage facility in 1976 where the bodies were kept resulted in extensive damage to the body of Pastrana’s son- the corpse was disposed of and Julia was moved to the University of Oslo.
In 2005, petitioning began for the repatriation of Pastrana back to her native Mexico. After over a decade of campaigning by artist Laura Anderson Barbata, Pastrana was brought back to her native home in 2013. She was laid to rest in a white coffin after a Catholic mass. Finally, Julia was given a dignified end to her story.
The story of Julia Pastrana is tragic and unsettling. Bodily autonomy in life and death was taken from Julia without her say in the matter. After a lifetime of scrutiny surrounding her appearance, despite Julia showing intelligence and a loving nature, this only continued at the hands of her husband after her death. To Lent, his wife was profitable, and whats even more disturbing is the fact that Lent did not seem upset in anyway to display his dead wife and son years after their passing. This questions his motive behind the marriage in the first instance, with the union likely more of a business plan than a loving partnership to the scrupulous businessman. It took years of body on display and a decade long campaign for Julia to finally be laid to rest- even then it is sad to think this would not have happened organically were it not for the relentlessness of Anderson Barbata.