The case of Julia Pastrana has long been held as a tragic example of exploitation. The remarkable bearded prodigy lived a life of manipulation and in death her body was abused and disgraced by callous souls and ignorance. The life of her contemporary could have easily followed the same shadowed path however her story is of true love, inner beauty and respect.
During her long life Percilla Lauther was known by many names. Originally she was descriptively dubbed ‘the hairy little girl’ and later as ‘the monkey girl’, but it is quite likely that she will forever be remembered by those dear to her as Percilla Bejano – loving wife of Emmitt the Alligator-Skinned Man.
The hirsute Percilla was born on April 26 of 1911 in the Puerto Rican town of Bayamon. Percilla had been born with hypertrichosis, she possessed two rows of teeth and drew immediate attention from the public and the medical community. Percilla’s father was a native of Spain and he did not know what to make of his hairy daughter initially. Percilla’s parents traveled to New York City seeking answers from American doctors and there they remained for seven months until Percilla’s father developed the idea of exhibiting his daughter for profit.
Percilla’s father was not a greedy man. He merely saw an opportunity to make the most of the situation nature had thrust upon his daughter. However his limited knowledge of English and business made promoting Percilla difficult and he approached showman Karl. L. Lauther for assistance. Lauther was an accomplished promoter and he owned and operated several shows during his lifetime. He took an instant interest in Percilla and hired her on the spot. Lauther also hired an assistant to help Percilla’s father care for the child after his wife returned to Puerto Rico. That arrangement was short lived however, as Percilla’s father was shot and killed in Gainesville. Upon his death, and according to his final wish, Lauther adopted young Percilla as his own daughter.
Percilla never said anything ill of her adoptive father, thus one may assume that he was a compassionate and loving man. In fact all evidence indicates that despite exhibiting Percilla for profit, Lauther was extremely sensitive to the public perception of his adoptive daughter. Lauther disliked the fact that the public took to calling Percilla a ‘monkey girl’ and verbally lashed out at anyone bold enough to call her a ‘freak’. But the ‘Monkey Girl’ moniker stuck and Lauther gave in and began to publicly pair Percilla with a trained chimpanzee named Josephine. He may have had the last laugh, however, as the two attractions were juxtaposed. Percilla would warmly and graciously welcome guests to her exhibit while Josephine would rudely smoke cigarettes and spit.
In the late 1930’s, while performing with the Johnny J. Jones Exposition, Percilla met fellow marvel Emmitt Bejano, the Alligator-Skinned Man. Despite her heavy beard and his ichthyosis a sweet romance blossomed between the unique couple. The pair saw past their physical differences. Emmitt was a man with calloused skin who spent performance intermissions submerged in vats of ice water because he could not sweat. Emmitt was quite literally ‘thick skinned’ and he had a ‘hard shell to crack’ but beneath he was a compassionate, gentle, charming and passionate man. Percilla, despite looking more beast than beauty, was elegant, eloquent and possessed an enchanting singing voice. Before long Percilla realized that the gentle Emmitt was the love of her life and the two eloped in 1938.
A year later, the couple welcomed a daughter, Francine, into their family. Unfortunately pneumonia extinguished her life after a scant four months.
When Emmitt and Percilla returned to exhibition they were promoted as the World’s Strangest Married Couple. Percilla and Emmitt shared the stage and most notably worked for Ringling Brothers and other shows successfully for over a decade. They appeared together in the 1980 film Carny opposite Jodie Foster and Gary Busey. Eventually the couple grew tired of life in the public eye and opted to retire to a private life in Gibsonton, Florida. There the two remained madly in love for many more years. Their union ended with Emmitt’s passing in 1995.
Percilla carried on, clean shaven for the first time in her life, and briefly appeared in various documentaries and on the Jerry Springer show where she charmed the audience with stories of her beloved Emmitt and by shyly singing his favourite song ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’.
Percilla herself passed away in her sleep in February of 2001. She is dearly missed by all who knew her.
Image: ‘Priscilla’ circa 1940.