February 16, 2013 9:51 AM   Subscribe

This week, the famed singer and performer Julia Pastrana was laid to rest near her birthplace in Sinaloa, Mexico.
Julia Pastrana died in 1860. Her husband had embalmed her body and exhibited it in a touring display for many years afterward, together with the remains of their infant son.

"Pastrana was born in Mexico in 1834. She had two rare diseases, undiagnosed in her lifetime: generalized hypertrichosis lanuginosa, which covered her face and body in thick hair, and gingival hyperplasia, which thickened her lips and gums."

Julia performed as a singer and actress. She was said to have a particularly beautiful voice. In one play, she performed as a woman who wears a veil at all times, and causes the hero to fall in love with her through her voice alone -- until the final act, when he sees her.

Described by all who knew her as sweet-natured, charitable, and domestic, Julia was in love with her husband -- her manager Theodore Lent, who subsequently married her in order to secure his investment in her. He impregnated her, despite her small stature and she did not survive childbirth; but the touring continued.

The rock song "Julia Pastrana," by the Ass Ponys (who, despite their own name, have produced a moving and lovely song here).

The play The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World, by Shaun Prendergast, is performed almost entirely in the dark. (Excerpt of a play performed in Spanish. I do not know if this is a translation of the same play about Julia Pastrana.)

The 1964 Italian movie La donna scimmia (The Ape Woman) was a fictionalized portrayal of Pastrana's life.
posted by Countess Elena (15 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Ha! I was in that Amphibian production!

Another interesting part of the story is that the head of Amphibian, Kathleen Culebreo, is the sister of Laura Barbata, the woman who spearheaded the effort to have Julia properly buried.

The whole story of Julia and Lent is bizarre and tragic. I haven't read everything there is to read about them, but I'm not convinced that Lent didn't love her. He was crazy in general for sure, but after her death he found a woman with similar afflictions and married her too, an action both within the bounds of a crazy exploitive asshole and a dude who was just into that kinda thing.

I mean, her face was hairy, but she didn't look malformed. She was physically symmetrical, an accomplished dancer, intelligent, and by all accounts a genuinely lovable person. Which is why there was so much speculation about her being a missing link or ape-human hybrid at the time (Darwin himself examined her and said, no, she's a human).

The story is fascinating, and if you get a chance to see the show, then take it. I've been hoping someone would post about this.
posted by cmoj at 10:12 AM on February 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

You lost me at "Her husband had embalmed her body and exhibited it in a touring display for many years".
posted by Mezentian at 10:17 AM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I should clarify that I'm not defending Lent. We know that she was a practicing Catholic and the embalming would have been against her wishes. It's just a complicated story as stories of interesting people's lives tend to be.
posted by cmoj at 10:24 AM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

A small but lovely gesture.
posted by Iteki at 10:35 AM on February 16, 2013

Mezentian: it's even worse than that --- Julia Pastrana died in Moscow; her son died three days after birth, and Julia herself died 4-5 days later. Her husband, Lent, had both Julia and their infant son taxidermied, and he displayed the bodies (together!) for profit for years.
posted by easily confused at 10:49 AM on February 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

The second wife who used to perform next to those bodies... tough gig.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 10:59 AM on February 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

The family that displays together stays together.
posted by twoleftfeet at 11:06 AM on February 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

posted by jquinby at 11:19 AM on February 16, 2013

Not only that, but the baby was, for some reason, dressed in a tiny sailor's uniform. And last shown in the 1950's.
posted by cmoj at 11:21 AM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ms. Barbata and a University of Oxford forensic anthropologist, Nicholas Márquez-Grant, noticed that Pastrana’s feet still had bolts and metal rods that were used for exhibiting her body.

For some reason that statement made me wince, hard. Perhaps I'm seeing it as a metaphor.

The bolts were removed and placed at the foot of her coffin.

And yet this feels somehow appropriate. IDK.

posted by BlueHorse at 1:12 PM on February 16, 2013

Another interesting part of the story is that the head of Amphibian, Kathleen Culebreo...

Sorry, for posterity, it's Culebro. Typo. She'd make fun of me forever if she found this.
posted by cmoj at 3:34 PM on February 16, 2013

Interesting post, especially the plays. New York Times published an article earlier in the week with a little more information.

I needed to look up 'gingival hyperplasia', so for anyone with journal access who is interested, Julia Pastrana, the nondescript: an example of congenital, generalized hypertrichosis terminalis with gingival hyperplasia. Or memail me.
posted by variella at 3:36 PM on February 16, 2013

Hers was a tragic tale... nice to see it have, if not a happy ending, at least a dignified one...
posted by Jughead at 8:26 PM on February 16, 2013

This is why I love metafilter.
posted by Mezentian at 9:57 PM on February 16, 2013

A man like that is pure evil. That poor woman and her little boy. Of course he'd find a new, similarly afflicted woman to exploit.

posted by discopolo at 12:08 PM on February 17, 2013

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