'Ape Woman' Buried After 150 Years: The Story Of Mexico's Julia Pastrana

By Staff Reporter on February 13, 2013 10:22 AM EST

Pastrana
"Ape Woman" Julia Pastrana is finally buried at her home town of Sinaloa de Leyva on Tuesday. (Photo: Creative Commons)

"Ape woman" Julia Pastrana is finally buried in Mexico after 150 years in a storage room at the University of Oslo.

Born 1834 in Mexico, Julia Pastrana was better known as "ape woman" due to a rare medical condition called congenital terminal hypertrichosis, which caused her hair to cover her entire body. What's more, gingival hyperplasia caused her lips and gums to be unusually thick, furthering an ape-like appearance.

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Due to her peculiar appearance, ill-spirited people that met Pastrana saw an opportunity for exploitation. According to the New York Times, a Mexican customs administrator bought her as a circus performer in 1854 and took her on traveling exhibitions as "The Ugliest Woman in the World" or "Ape Woman" to earn serious money. The traveling exhibition took Julia Pastrana through Europe as well as the United States and Canada.

When Julia traveled to New York, she fell in love and married Theodore Lent, an impresario who later became her manager. Rheumatologist Jan Bondeson of Cardiff University in Wales wrote the book "A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities," which dedicated a chapter for Pastrana.

"She was definitely in love with Mr. Lent," wrote Bondeson. "I am certain the reason he married her was that he could keep control of her and the not unconsiderable earnings."

As her manager, Lent toured his wife across Europe and allowed newspapers and books to describe her appearance without filter. Prints called her "gorillalike" and "revolting in the extreme." In fact, Bondeson's novel documented that a doctor even claimed Julia Pastrana was an offspring of a human and an "Orang Outang."

Despite her unfortunate appearance, Julia Pastrana is not without her talents. Charles Darwin described Julia in his book "The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication."

Julia Pastrana, a Spanish dancer, was a remarkably fine woman, but she had a thick masculine beard and a hairy forehead; she was photographed, and her stuffed skin was exhibited as a show; but what concerns us is, that she had in both the upper and lower jaw an irregular double set of teeth, one row being placed within the other, of which Dr. Purland took a cast. From the redundancy of the teeth her mouth projected, and her face had a gorilla-like appearance.

Shortly after their marriage, Julia and Theodore were expecting a son in 1859. Unfortunately, Pastrana's baby inherited her hypertrichosis condition and died just hours after his birth. Julia Pastrana was dead five days later from complications during childbirth.

Lent embalmed the bodies of his wife and son and continued to exhibit them until he later found another bearded woman in Germany. They married and Theodore toured with the new bearded lady as Julia's sister, "Zenora Pastrana."

Eventually, Julia Pastrana's body was locked in a storage room at the University of Oslo for research.

In 2003, Kathleen Anderson Culebro produced a staging of "The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World" in the state of Texas. The play first debuted in London in 1998 and was performed in the dark. Critics said the setting of the play demonstrated a "perfect marriage -- a woman known for her ugliness, but with a beautiful voice, presented in a way which would force the audience to conjure her with their imagination."

Kathleen Anderson Cuelbro's sister, Laura Anderson Barbata, eventually got to see the play, which totally captured her attention, moving her to help Julia Pastrana to return to Mexico for a proper burial at her birthplace.

“I felt she deserved the right to regain her dignity and her place in history, and in the world's memory,”said Barbata, a New York-based visual artist. “I hoped to help change her position as a victim to one where she can be seen in her entirety and complexity. By ending up as part of a collection in a basement, she lost any trace of dignity. My ultimate dream goal was that she should go back to Mexico and be buried."

An effort nearly a decade in the making, Laura Anderson Barbata and Julia Pastrana's wish was granted. Many mourners and spectators gathered at Pastrana's home, Sinaloa de Leyva, on Tuesday.

During the burial, Father Jaime Reyes Retana said, "A human being should not be the object of anyone."

"Imagine the aggression and cruelty of humankind she had to face, and how she overcame it. It's a very dignified story," said Sinaloa Governor Mario Lopez.

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