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 froma form 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

Author, researcher and an expert of the odd, J. Tithonus Pednaud has been chronicling bizarre history and highlighting the lives of those born exceeding different for over a decade.

49 Comments

  • Reply May 18, 2007

    Carol

    I heard about Julia through a poem by Wendy Rose as published in The Halfbreed Chronicles and Other Poems.
    You have written an excellent detailed article about her.

  • Reply August 1, 2007

    Anonymous

    There was what she looked like and then there was who she really was; an intelligent, talented survivor, someone who took the phrase “taking lemons and making them into lemonade” and worked it to its ultimate, triumphal meaning. To coolheadedly understand mankind’s lowest urge, that of gawking at and dehumanizing a human being with such superficial differences from the accepted mainstream – what a strong and centered person she must have been!

    Julia, wherever she is now, is still teaching people about tolerance and difference and compassion. God bless this dear lady – I hope she is happy now.

  • Reply August 5, 2007

    Bob Schilling

    Just a note regarding further information about Julia Pastrana and Theodor Lent’s second wife with similar deformations, Zenora. The book, “Very Speical People” by Frederick Drimmer published in 1973 has a chapter on them with a photograph of Julia; and a few other notes can be found online at wikipedia.

  • Reply October 28, 2007

    Anonymous

    I can’t believe that people could be so ignorant and regarded her as a “monster”.

    The way the mummies were destroyed simply made me feel like crying.

    • Reply February 14, 2013

      Diago Pellew

      this story is incredible…but it is so sad..verrry sad..i mean the woman died over 153 years ago..instead of being properly buried..she was sold by that husband of hers (oh thank God hes dead :P) i feel sorry for her…anyways shes buried..now she can rest in peace after all that touring

  • Reply November 18, 2007

    Anonymous

    Since 1997 the remains for Mrs Pastrana have rested in a sealed coffin at the Department of Anathomy at The Oslo university. “She is now a burried woman, not an exhibition object. She rests as peaceful – and with the same dignity as thousands of other corpses in our european churches”, to quote the man in charge, prof Gunnar Nicolaysen.

    source (in Norwegian but still the source): http://www.admin.uio.no/ia/uniforum/1999/uniforum17-99/05.html

  • Reply January 16, 2008

    Jill

    There is a musical play (incorporating the fact the Julia was also renown for her singing) called “Pastrana” that tells the story of her life upto when Lent goes into the madhouse.
    I can’t remember the playwrights etc details though.
    The play dramatises her story, but seems to keep fairly true to her tragic story.
    Jill 16th Jan 2008

  • Reply January 30, 2008

    Anonymous

    my moms friend wrote a book on this.

  • Reply January 30, 2009

    MissyMiss

    A band called the Ass Ponys (don’t blame me, I didn’t name them) have a very touching song about her on their album Grim. I always thought she would be a good subject for a biographical novel.

  • Reply February 22, 2009

    Elias

    Very sad story, she lived a good life from what I can see but ended up a snob “there not rich enough” wth? Its only sad to me because first she and her son were sold than made into mummies, than used as pathetic attractions by Lent for a money scheme. That is horrible and completely immoral. What disgusting people will do for money.

  • Reply March 10, 2009

    Tom

    A film based on Julia’s sad story was made in Europe in the 70s. It is called “a Scimmia Donna”(“The Ape Woman”), and is quite tastefully done. To date, I believe it is only made available within the grey market of video distribution.

  • Reply April 16, 2009

    Joey

    I am so happy to hear that she has been buried! I actually read this last night and was rather haunted that she was suppose to be still hanging around. It sound like she had to make the best out of what life she was given. I could only imagine what this Lent guy was like! I hope he lives in eternity on display in hell! God bless her soul!

  • Reply June 20, 2009

    Julieann

    That’s sad, Julia’s body and as well as her son’s were sold as mummies instead of a proper burial…:(

  • Reply July 4, 2009

    MeteorMaker

    Norwegian composer Kaada also titled one of his songs “Julia Pastrana”.

  • Reply December 16, 2009

    Sam Wanjere

    Just sad how human society chooses to look at one’s exterior, at the detriment of one’s character. Treating a fellow human as an object of curiosity, while common, is sad and inhuman (for lack of a better word). I’ve ingested this story as continued examples of what the Bible calls “treasures in jars of clay”, as the lady’s abilities are nothing short of remarkable. Quite amazing research.

  • Reply December 22, 2009

    Knave

    Professor Sukolov of Moscow University used unknown embalming techniques in the 1860′s, surely, they are known today however…

    With my understandable fascination with the macabre, I was wondering if you could lead me to a more consistent and reliable source for investigating the details of this process.

    I appreciate your time and consideration,
    Knave

  • [...] Julia Pastrana Charles Darwin described her thusly: “a remarkably fine woman – she had a thick and masculine beard.” a charming person and graceful dancer with a beautiful voice, julia toured the world as a bearded lady in the mid-1800s. test Filed under illustration, oddities, sketchbook | Tags: beard | [...]

  • Reply June 8, 2010

    Anonymous ,(:

    This Is A Great Article , You Helped Me Alot With My Project Very Interesting

  • Reply July 22, 2010

    John

    Linda Medley worked some details of Julia’s story into a plotline for her comic CASTLE WAITING. This version of Julia had a much happier life.

  • Reply August 16, 2010

    olivier belgium

    I write a a book about Julia Pastrana.Someone can tell me where are her rests now in 2010?. In Norway or in United States (in a collection)?
    Thx so much

  • [...] More Share: [...]

  • Reply November 11, 2010

    Komodo Sasquatch

    I’m doing her life story for Biology! Great job. AND LORD BLESS HER MIGHTY AND BRAVE SOUL!!!

  • Reply December 5, 2010

    Anonymous

    Amazing, a real-life bigfoot, and nobody seems to notice.

  • Reply February 12, 2011

    ANONYMOUS

    Story of survival, and acceptance of who she was. She should be taken back to rest in peace to her land Sinaloa, Mexico.

  • [...] the most famous person with hypertrichosis was Julia Pastrana, a Mexican woman who appeared in sideshows as “the Bear Woman”. Julia Pastrana was [...]

  • Reply March 26, 2011

    Rachel

    Julia’s case came up in a random search I was making for something else, and caught my attention. Poor woman! You’ve written a marvelous article on her, though, and I read it right through.

  • Reply May 31, 2011

    Bee

    This is a really good article. Does anyone know where I might be able to get hold of/read an english translation of the interview with Die Gartenlaube? I’m doing a dissertation on Pastrana and am trying to find original sources. any help would be much appreciated!!!

  • Reply July 5, 2011

    Liz

    I posted this article on the section about Barbara Urselin, but I’ll repost it here. What I find a bit sad about these women with hypertrichosis is that whereas men with a similar disorder seemed to have married women who genuinely loved them (ex. Petrus Gonsalvus’ wife), the husbands of women with unusual hair growth seemed to have married them for the money they could get out of them. Oh well, nature’s a bitch.

  • Reply July 17, 2011

    Snodge

    Well done article.
    I have read that Julia was a very dainty and lovely young woman. We should remember her as such

  • Reply October 31, 2011

    Ivan

    Hi everyone, the mexican goverment is trying to bring Julia’s body to Mexico. Hope they can do this , so she can rest in peace on her land.

  • [...] JULIA PASTRANA – The Nondescript en inglés. [...]

  • Reply August 2, 2012

    Trine

    It’s now decided that she’s coming back to Mexico. She will finally rest in peace.

  • Reply October 14, 2012

    Lisa

    Julia was the beautiful one. The exploiters were the ugly ones. May her soul be reunited with her little baby’s for all eternity and may they both rest in peace.

  • Reply November 3, 2012

    Michelle

    I think Juila’s life should be celebrated by her fearless, humble spirit and natural talents. It’s quite disheartening that she was convinced to live her whole life on display. Even after her death, they wanted to continue this sideshow tradition. I think an autobiography of her life would have certainly sufficed during that time to document her truly unique life. But to make her whole life a circus show was truly the meaning. God bless her and all those who genuinely cared about her well being.

  • Reply November 15, 2012

    Fely

    Ya esta preparado un espacio para los restos de esta gran señora, en un panteón de guasave, sinaloa. Fue triste la historia de ella. Descanse en paz. Noviembre 2012

  • [...] article about Julia may be read at http://thehumanmarvels.com/?p=33    The following is the first portion of a Boston playbill about [...]

  • Reply February 12, 2013

    HeidiK

    Thank you for the update! What a relief to know Julia at least will get a fraction of the dignity she deserves as a human being. I wept to think her infant son’s remains were likely just thrown away.
    Recently, I saw a video on YouTube that contained some of Julia’s story. It was a rather respectfully-done documentary titled “Some Call Them …Freaks” and originally run exclusively in 1982 on the HBO channel. It is hosted by Richard Kiley, who treats the people highlighted within the documentary with gracious respect.
    What puzzled me is that it seemed to show Julia dancing and singing in old-looking black-and-white film (as in, not the best quality)…but I have no idea if it was a cleverly done recreation by actors of the day or actual footage of the woman with the beautiful voice.
    The documentary: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sq3O8COTgTY

  • Reply February 12, 2013

    Liz

  • Reply February 12, 2013

    Liz

    To HeidiK, don’t thank me; thank my dad. He called up specifically this morning to tell me about the news. He knew about Julia Pastrana through the film the Ape Woman.

    I suppose the thing I found the saddest about Julia Pastrana is that while she truly loved Theodore Lent, he obviously married her only for the money. Maybe she knew this and denied it by saying, as she once did, ‘He loves me for myself.’ Generally, I don’t like the idea of people living in a so-called fool’s paradise, but in the end perhaps I like to think that maybe Julia Pastrana really did.

  • [...] Gylseth & Lars O. Toverud.  A brief profile of Julia’s life and career may be read at thehumanmarvels.com.  Evidently Julia’s arms and legs were either shaved or photographic retouching was [...]

  • Reply February 13, 2013

    Larry

    I believe I actually saw her corpse in the early seventies when she was on display in the US. I went to a sideshow at a fair with the James Strates Shows and viewed her. She was in a wooden case with a glass top. And, best that I can remember the baby was in the case with her. I believe this to be true because in the book “Very Special People” it stated that her body was indeed on tour with the James Strates Shows during that time. Looking back, if I had realized the importance of what I was viewing I wish I had taken some pictures. At the time, wasn’t sure that I was seeing her true body or just a fake sideshow exhibit. But, like most of the rest of you I am very glad she has returned home and finally been laid to rest.

  • Reply February 13, 2013

    Larry

    Sorry folks, I have a correction. Julia was not on display with the Strates Shows. It was “Gooding’s Million Dollar Midway” that she was on display with that I actually viewed. The reason for my error that she was on display with the Strates Shows was Strates took over the fair I attended after Gooding’s Shows left. It’s been about forty years since I viewed Julia’s Remains so had to do a little research and that’s when I found out that it was Goodings and it is referenced in the book “Very Special People”.

  • Reply February 14, 2013

    Diago Pellew

    but my god..her son wasn’t buried..he was… thrown..away..oh my God..people are just so heartless..i cried when i read this article..honestly…some people are just so immortal and cold

  • Reply February 18, 2013

    Green Eagle

    Only indirectly related, but I remember a picture of Julia on the front page of the Thunderbolt (the newspaper of the National States Rights Party) in the late sixties. The photo was claimed to be the result of the mating of a black person and a gorilla, proving that blacks are not human beings.

  • Reply March 31, 2013

    Kalikanisini

    It is strange how emotional people get about things that is so common, like death and suffering, and that they then are totally distance them from the realities of life. If you read the article below titled Julia and her Tribe, and you realise that today’s scientists are politically and emotionally motivated, then you can see how absurd it is to wish that this sub- human will rest in peace now after a burial. As a child I also died when my dog died but I did not burry it and hope it will rest in peace with god How can people still today. with access to this vast IT, still believe that there is a god and a heaven and even animals are going there after death People, wake up! This ape women was not dragged all over the world in slavery by a maniac. She really enjoyed this new life of entertainment away from the Root Diggers. If she was here today she would have sung a wonderful version of ‘I believe I can fly” her life was like that of Cinderella. She advanced from Root Digger to Diva Celebrity, but like many of them she is not going to no heaven

  • Reply May 9, 2013

    Ugly | spurtive

    [...] Julia Pastrana, despite being known and shown as the world’s ugliest woman, was by all accounts a happy, curious, talented, and poised woman.  The tragedy of her life was not the hideous face she was given, but the cruelty with which she was treated  throughout her life and after her death.  I wonder what her life would have been like if she lived during our time.  It’s tempting to distance ourselves morally from the Victorians (for oh so many reasons) but I’d like us to remember when we first met Susan Boyle.  How until she sang we were all laughing at her.  If we weren’t, we were sure as hell ready to. [...]

  • [...] JULIA PASTRANA – The Nondescript – The Human Marvels – Freaks, Human Oddities and Marvels She found a man. Then again, she looks kind of pale in that picture. [...]

  • [...]   2- The Myths and Truths Surrounding Werewolf Legend:   3- Lionel, the Lion-Faced Boy   4- JULIA PASTRANA – The Nondescript   5- World’s Hairiest Girl, Supatra Sasuphan, Inspires Community To Look Beyond Appearances [...]

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