Julia Pastrana was born in 1834 Sinaloa, Mexico in a poor family. She started to work in her early years to support the family. Unfortunately, the condition in which she was born could not help her. She had Hypertrichosis, a disorder that causes an abnormal amount of hair growth in the face, chest, and limbs. She was also diagnosed with gingival hyperplasia, which increases the size of the gums that produces visual effect of a protruding jaw. During her time, the problems she encountered was very rare and hence nobody knew how to deal with it.
For a few years she worked as a domestic servant for a governor in Sinaloa, but she was removed from the job as they though her presence would hamper the business and investment opportunities in the state. These events coincided with the heyday of circuses and freak shows. Since there were no scientific explanations for these physical ailments, audiences where intrigued by people with out of the common appearances.
Since Julia was one of a kind, two businessmen from America hired her to exhibit her in their shows. She would be presented as “the ugliest woman in the world,” the “bearded woman,” or the “bear woman.” Being only 20 years old, her life changed radically due to these events.
She made her first freak show appearance at the Gothic Hall, in New York City. She was referred to as the ‘link between mankind and the orangutan.’ She was humiliated and that was the main attraction of the show, but people thronged to see her. She was seen as a monster, an unmistakable icon of ugliness. She made a couple of tours in the United States and then met her future husband and manager, circus impresario Theodore Lent
She started to make regular appearance at fair shows. In 1857, Lent married her so he could control her and keep all the earnings for himself. They both toured Europe and appeared in shows across England, Germany, Poland, and Russia. She drew admiration, curiosity and disgust wherever she went. Some newspapers and books described her appearance as: “gorilla-like” or “revolting in the extreme.” Yet, there were people who noticed other qualities behind her mask.
Francis Buckland, a British natural historian, highlighted in his book that she had a sweet singing voice, a great taste in music and dancing, spoke three languages and was also very charitable.
Julia was pregnant by Lent in 1859 while touring. However, the child inherited her hypertrichosis and died hours after his birth in Moscow. Julia too died after five days because of the complications.
Meanwhile, Lent’s greed had no limit. He decided to exhibit the bodies of his son and his wife. He later found a bearded woman in Germany whom he married and presented as Julia’s sister. He would make his new wife perform alongside the bodies.
While Charles Darwin never saw any of Julia’s shows while she was touring London, he did write about her. Eight years after her death, he included a description of her in his The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868), which reads as follows:
“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 […] From the redundancy of the teeth her mouth projected, and her face had a gorilla-like appearance”
After Lent passed away, Julia’s body was exhibited by a Norwegian fairground operator in the early 1970s. The bodies of Julia and her son were stolen in 1976. At last her remains were found inside a bin, with a dismembered arm, while the child’s body was damaged beyond repair.
It was presumed that the bodies were dissected. The police transferred her body to the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Oslo, where she was placed in storage, and later on moved to a climate-controlled room of anatomical specimens at the university’s Institute of Basic Medical Sciences
A few years after her origins were confirmed, her body was sent back to Mexico in 2013, so she could be buried in her homeland. She received a proper burial as an attempt to give her the humane and dignified treatment she never received, and thus end a story of exploitation and abuse.