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an illustration of Julia Pastrana, a Victorian stage performer who toured Europe, Canada, and the United States billed as the Bearded Lady, the Nondescript, the Ape-Woman.

An illustration of Julia Pastrana, a Victorian stage performer who toured Europe, Canada, and the United States billed as the Bearded or Hairy Lady, the Nondescript, the Ape-Woman, the Marvelous Hybrid or Bear Woman.

Julia Pastrana (1834-1860) was one of the most famous human curiosities of her time, touring Europe, Canada, and the United States in the 1850s as “the Bearded Lady” or the “Ape-Woman.” Born poor in Mexico, she suffered from a rare inherited disorder (hypertrichosis), not understood during the Victorian Age, that caused her entire body to be covered in silky, black hair. Add to that a jutting jaw with huge teeth that made her look positively like a monkey. Yet while grotesque and freakish, she also exuded a feminine grace. She sang Spanish songs sweetly, had slender feet and hands, and displayed a buxom figure at a petite four-and-a-half feet tall. She styled her hair in elaborate coiffures and wore embroidered lace dresses that barely covered her knees. She spoke three languages, cooked, and sewed. In her stage act, she danced a Highland Fling.

When she toured London in 1857 in one of the monster shows popular at the time, she attracted journalists, doctors, and scientific minds. Julia was very popular. It cost 3 shillings to see her in the Regent Gallery, compared to the 6 shillings that a Victorian laborer might earn in a week. Promoted by her avarious manager and new husband, Theodore Lent, Julia was now billed as “The Nondescript,” suggesting that she was a unique species, perhaps “the missing link” between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. Debate raged in the newspapers as to her origins and her appearance was described at length. She submitted to medical examinations freely and received many distinguished visitors. Charles Darwin mentioned her in his book, The Variation of Animal and Plants under Domestication, writing:

Julia Pastrana, a Spanish dancer, was a remarkably fine woman – she had a thick and masculine beard.”

Julia loved her husband very much and, in 1859 in Moscow, she became pregnant with their first child. Her doctors were worried. Julia’s narrow hips and small frame could mean a difficult childbirth, they warned. On March 20, 1860, Julia gave birth to a hair-covered little boy. He died within 35 hours. Julia died five days later, at age 26.

Theodore Lent was distraught. Julia had been the bank. Now the bank was closed! How was he to live now that his source of income had died? He had a Eureka moment. Why should the bank close? He sent Julia’s corpse and that of his newborn son to Professor Sukolov of Moscow University for embalming. The process took 6 months but the results were amazing. Julia’s mummified remains looked lifelike. He dressed Julia in one of her dancing costumes and his son in a cute sailor suit. He stood them up on a pedestal and took them on a tour, exhibiting them as pickled specimens for 20 years.

Julia Pastrana and son, embalmed, on tour after their deaths

Julia Pastrana and son, embalmed, on tour after their deaths

When touring Sweden, Theodore met another hairy young woman named Zenora who suffered from a condition very similar to Julia. He married her and began touring her as Zenora Pastrana – Julia’s sister. Theodore grew richer and richer. In the 1880s, he and Zenora retired to St. Petersburg where they bought a waxworks museum. Theodore wasn’t able to enjoy his retirement for long because he became ill and was sent to a lunatic asylum where he died.

Over the course of the next 100 years, the mummies changed hands countless times, being sold to German fairs, an Austrian circus, and a Norwegian chamber of horrors. They came out of mothballs in 1970 and went on a short tour of Sweden and Norway. An American tour was aborted due to public outcry over the utter tastlessness of the idea. The mummies were put in storage by Norwegian owner Hans Lund in 1973.

In August of 1976, vandals broke into the storage unit. Julia’s mummified son was mutilated and his remains eaten by mice. Only her body remained. Then in 1979, the storage facility was again broken into and Julia’s body was stolen. It was assumed at the time to be destroyed.

Then, in February of 1990, a Norwegian journalist made a surprise discovery of a mummy in the basement of the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Oslo. It turns out that, back in 1979, the police had responded to a call involving some children who found an arm in a ditch. A search revealed the mummified body of Julia, badly mangled. The police did not know her identity. They took the mummy to the Institute.

It is believed by some, though not confirmed by me at this time, that the remains of Julia Pastrana have rested in a sealed coffin at the Department of Anatomy at Oslo University since 1997. “She is now a buried woman, not an exhibition object. She rests [at peace],” says Professor Gunnar Nicolaysen [translated from Norwegian].

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