JULIA PASTRANA – The Nondescript

The prodigious Julia Pastrana was known by many monikers during her life and perhaps just as many names in death.Both her life and her death are rather sad tales, but they hold a very special place in sideshow history because, for a time, she was not considered a member of the human race.

 Julia’s origins are shrouded in mystery.It is believed that she was born in 1834 to a tribe of ‘Root Digger’ Indians in the western slopes of Mexico. However, what is highly obvious is that Julia had appearance unlike any marvel before her on record. In addition to excessive hairiness over her body – predominately in the face – Julia also possessed a jutting jaw and swollen gums.In odd juxtaposition to her ape like features, Julia possessed great poise, and a well developed a buxom four and a half foot figure.

Her documented career began in 1854 as she was exhibited in New York at the Gothic Hall on Broadway as ‘The Marvelous Hybrid or Bear Woman’.Her ‘handler’ was one M. Rates who allegedly discovered the young Julia as a servant girl to the governor of Sinaloa, Mexico.While in New York, Julia attracted the attention of many scientific minds and media moguls.One newspaper described her as ‘terrifically hideous’ and possessing a ‘harmonious voice’ – which gives evidence that she sang during her exhibition.One of the members of Medical society to examine her was Dr. Alexander Mott who declared her ‘the most extraordinary beings of the present day’ and ‘a hybrid between human and orangutan’.

Julia then moved on to Cleveland with a new promoter, J. W. Beach, and it is there that Dr. S. Brainerd declared her a ‘distinct species’.That analysis was, of course, quickly added to all subsequent promotional materials.

Julia impressed many with her charm and grace.When invited to attend a military gala, she waltzed with many of the braver men there and, while in Boston – billed as the “Hybrid Indian: The Misnomered Bear Woman – Julia again impressed with her grace and singing voice.So much so that she was put on exhibition by both the Horticultural Society and the Boston History Society.

Julia was preceded in London, England by impressive newspaper announcements touting her as ‘a Grand and Novel Attraction’. Now going by the epithet ‘The Nondescript’ – a term that in this era mean something unexplainable – Julia was now being show by one Mr. Theodore Lent and was a rousing success.In fact, the bulk of the documentation on Julia comes from this time period, when London reporter could not stop debating her origins and describing her appearance in lengthy articles.In these articles, Julia is described as being very civilized and domestic.In addition to her native language, she also spoke Spanish and English quite well. She loved to travel, cook and sew.She willing gave herself to medical examination and was said to have an eager thirst for knowledge.These articles also seemed to emphasize that she was both happy and content with her situation and she did not covet wealth – though her ‘handler’ Mr. Lent surely did.During her performances in London, Julia sang romances in both Spanish and English and danced what are described as ‘fancy dances’ – likely traditional Spanish numbers.

After London Mr. Lent secured a tour of Berlin and in Leipzig, Julia played the leading role in a play called Der curierte Meyer.In the play, a young German boy falls in love with a woman who always wears a veil.When the young man was not on stage, Julia would lift her veil to the great amusement of the audience. The play ends with the young man finally seeing his beloved – and being cured of his infatuation.Following the play, the weekly magazine Gartenlaube published an extensive interview with Julia – an article published with a fantastic life sketch by the artist H. Konig (pictured above).The article consisted of Julia speaking on her tours of America and London and of the numerous marriage proposals she had received.She claimed to have turned down over twenty admirers because ‘they were not rich enough’.That was a response that the reporter suspected Mr. Lent had coached – in the hopes of attracting a rich suitor.

That notion was short lived and Mr. Lent, wary of loosing his investment in Julia to rivals, married her in 1857. While there is evidence that Julia was infatuated with her husband, Mr. Lent was not a kind man.While in Vienna he forced Julia to undergo sensitive physical examinations and barred her from leaving their apartment during daylight. As their tour through Poland and on to Moscow continued, Mr. Lent became more and more controlling.In late 1859, while in Moscow, it was discovered that Julia was pregnant.The doctors feared a difficult childbirth due to Julia’s stature and narrow hips; however Julia was more concerned that the baby should take after its father.On March 20, 1860 her fears were confirmed when she gave birth to a hair covered newborn boy.The child lived only thirty-five hours.

Julia died five days later.

During her lifetime Julia, though treated little more than an object by her promoters, did meet many influential people.She was visited by P.T. Barnum himself and even Charles Darwin acknowledged her in his book The Variation of Animal and Plants under Domestication with the words ‘Julia Pastrana, a Spanish dancer, was a remarkably fine woman – she had a thick and masculine beard’.Her condition at the time was unknown, yet given all the evidence: excessive hair, melodic voice, dental deformations and a child born with excessive hair– it is likely that she suffered from a form of hypertrichosis lanuginose. All of her interviews and personal anecdotes promote the idea that she was a happy and content woman – pleased with her lot in life.Yet, one is left with a sour feeling when reflecting on the events of her life.

However, that is nothing compared to the feeling one suffers when recounting her afterlife.

Shortly after her death, Mr. Lent continued his commercial aspirations with Julia.He sold her corpse, as well as the body of his son, to Professor Sukolov of Moscow University.The Professor took the bodies to his Anatomical Institute, dissected them, and then – using unknown embalming techniques – mummified the bodies of Julia and her son.The entire process took six months and the results, while macabre, were impressive.Unlike the mummies of ancient Egypt, these mummified remains retained their color, texture and form and appeared very lifelike.Sukolov placed the mummies in the anatomical museum of the University where they attracted great crowds.

When Mr. Lent heard of the profit his wife and child were earning in death he went about legal proceedings to reclaim them. He presented his marriage certificate to the American consul and Sukolov was forced to release the remains.Lent tried to put the mummies on display in Russia but the authorities refused as they were outside the confines of a scientific institute.Thus, in February of 1862 Lent return to England to show Julia Pastrana again.The price was only a shilling and, with the added attraction of the mummified infant, the exhibit was packed with onlookers.Inside it was said that the ‘Embalmed Nondescript’ stood dressed in one of her many dancing costumes while her son stood to her left – atop a small pedestal and dressed in a sailor suit.

When the popularity of the exhibit began to fade, Lent rented the mummies to an English traveling museum of curiosities. In 1864 they were taken on a tour of Sweden.Most unbelievably, during that same time, Lent met a young lady with a condition very similar to Julia.In fact, unbelievably, the two looked so much alike that Lent married her as well and began touring her as Zenora Pastrana – Julia’s sister. The mummy rejoined Lent for a time and the four of them toured together, however Lent rented to mummies to a Vienna museum and began to claim that Zenora and Julia were one and the same.

Lent and Zenora retired to St. Petersburg in the early 1880’s and purchased a small waxworks museum.Lent was quite wealthy by this time however he was unable to enjoy his wealth as, shortly after retirement, he experienced a mental breakdown and disappeared behind the walls of a sanitarium.It is assumed that he died shortly thereafter.

Zenora left Russia for Munich in 1888 where she reclaimed the mummies and toured with then – this time to ‘prove’ that she was not Julia.In 1889 Zenora gave the mummies to an anthropological exhibit in Munich run by a man named J. B. Gassner before she retired again and remarried to a much younger man.

Gassner took the mummies to various German fairs and, in 1895, he took them to a large circus convention in Vienna and sold them to the highest bidder. In the next twenty-five years the mummies changed hands several times and showed up again in 1921 when a Mr. Lund bought them for his Norwegian ‘chamber of horrors’.At this point, it is unclear if Lund knew these mummies were real as the medical community considered them lost.

In 1943, during the German occupation, the chamber of horrors collection was ordered to be destroyed however Lund was able to convince authorities that a tour of the ‘Apewoman’ – as Julia was now called – would prove beneficial to the treasury of the Third Reich.For several year, Julia and her son toured German occupied territories.

In 1953, Lund stored his chamber of horrors collection, including the mummies, in a large warehouse just outside of Oslo.For several years rumors spread that the warehouse was occupied by a strange ape-like creature and one night in the mid 50’s teens broke into the warehouse and Julia terrified them – some 80 years after her death.The experience and rumors that followed grew so popular that Lund’s son Hans (Lund had since passed away) took the chamber out of storage and back on popular display until the mid 60’s.Still, no one truly realized that these mummies were actual human beings.

That changed in 1969 when Judge Hofheinz, a very wealthy American collector of the unusual hired a small team of detectives to track down the mummies of Julia and her child.It was a circus director named Rhodin who eventually tracked down some pamphlets and posters and made contact with Hans.Now aware of the priceless relic he now possessed, Hans instigated a bidding war only to decline all offers and put the mummies back on exhibit himself.The press picked up the story of Julia and the exhibit proved so popular that it toured Sweden and Norway in 1970. In 1971, they made their way back to the United States – over one hundred year after the living Julia began her career there.The tour was cut short in America due to public outcry and when Hans attempted to return to Norway – he was denied exhibition rights.Undeterred, Hans rented the mummies to a Swedish traveling show until good taste arrived and the exhibition was banned there as well.Defeated, Hans placed the mummies in storage in 1973.

In August of 1976, the storage facility was broken into and the mummies vandalized.The child was badly damaged as its jaw and arm were torn off.His remains were thrown in a ditch outside and before it could be located – it was almost entirely eaten by mice – only scraps remained.Julia now stood alone.

In 1979, the storage facility was again broken into and this time Julia was stolen.It was presumed that it too was destroyed.

Then, in February of 1990, a Norwegian journalist discovered the mummy in the basement of the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Oslo.In 1979 police responded to a call involving some children who found an arm in a ditch.A search of the area revealed the mummified body of Julia, badly mangled.Unsure of what to do or even what it was, the police brought the mummy to the institute where it remained limbo – no one really paying it any attention.

Apparently it is still there – tucked away in some corner covered with a dusty blanket.

UPDATE:

In June 2012 the National Commission for research on human remains recommended that Julia should be returned to her homeland Mexico for burial. It is unclear when the funeral can take place, but it’s going to happen as soon as scientific tests have been taken, according to Uniforum.

image: illustration byH. Konig, originally produced in the magaize Gartenlaube.

Adapted from the work of Jan Bondeson and his book A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities and the book Very Special People.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS