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The Victorian stage performer, Julia Pastrana lived a life of hardship, being labeled many things, such as The Bearded Lady, The Ape Woman, and The Marvelous Hybrid throughout her life. Even after marriage, she was used as a source of income, rather than treated as a dignified wife. Born with rare genetic conditions known as hypertrichosis and gingival hyperplasia, Pastrana suffered from severe excess hair all over her body, Reuters reported. Her physical appearance brought her the title of “the ugliest woman in the world” during the mid-19th century.
In the 1850s, she met and married an American man, Theodore Lent, who featured her in freak shows across the United States and Europe, where she would sing songs and dance, dressed in embroidered lace dresses. The talented Highland fling dancer grabbed the attention of many doctors, journalists, and scientists, making her very popular. Lent, her manager and husband at the time, posted an advertisement in The New York Times describing her as the “link between mankind and the ourang-outang.”
Regardless, Pastrana loved her husband dearly and became pregnant with their first child. On March 20, 1860, she gave birth to a baby boy who inherited her genetic conditions and died within 35 hours. Her narrow hips and petite frame led to childbirth complications and Pastrana died five days later, aged 26. Afterwards, Lent sent the bodies of his wife and son for embalming and used them as a means of survival for the next 20 years, exhibiting their mummified remains in various places. Finally, after many decades, Julia’s body was found at the University of Oslo in Norway; the remains of her mummified son were at some point mutilated and eaten by mice in 1976, according to historians.
Recently, Julia Pastrana was given a proper burial near her birthplace in Sinaloa, Mexico, where she can rest in dignity. The process of locating her body was challenging but not impossible; Laura Anderson Barbata, a New York-based visual artist worked hard for many years to find Pastrana. According to The New York Times, Ms. Barbata said, “I felt she deserved the right to regain her dignity and her place in history, and in the world’s memory; I hoped to help change her position as a victim to one where she can be seen in her entirety and complexity.”
The Catholic burial ceremony was exquisite, attended by many in the small town of Sinaloa de Leyya. Pastrana was buried in a white coffin adorned with white roses. Ms. Barbata described the ceremony as beautiful, quoting from Reuters, she said, “I was very moved. In all these years I’ve never felt so full of different emotions.”