In the mountains of Western Mexico in 1834, Julia Pastrana was born with congenital terminal hypertrichosis and gingival hyperplasia, rare genetic disorders which left her face and body covered in thick hair and made her lips and gums thick.
She became known as the “bear woman” or “ape woman”. In 1854, she left the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa when she was 20 and was taken to freak shows around the United States by showman Theodore Lent where she would sing and dance for paying audiences.
Julia would go on to become one of the most famous human curiosities of the 19th century. Huge, appreciative crowds flocked to see her, although it wasn’t really the singing and dancing they were after: they came to gawk at her ape-like appearance.
Described as the “ugliest woman in the world,” Julia had also toured Europe and Russia where she was exploited as part of a traveling exhibition that made Lent a wealthy man.
By then rival showmen, possibly even including P.T. Barnum, began to take an interest in her. Threatened, Lent decided to make the arrangement with his living, breathing, investment more permanent by proposing to Julia. Reportedly, the young woman was “touchingly devoted” to him. Her entire world revolved around her showman, even turning down more than 20 marriage proposals.
She and Lent secretly married and had a son who inherited her hypertrichosis and died 35 hours after his birth. Five days later, Julia developed a fever related to complications from childbirth and died at age 26 in Moscow. But Julia’s story did not end there.
Even after her death, Julia’s body was exhibited across the world. After she died in 1860, her American husband toured with her embalmed body, which ended up at the University of Oslo in Norway.
In a further twist in 1976, they were stolen, dumped, and recovered by the police. The remains ended up in a storage room at an Oslo research institute, and after learning of the body’s whereabouts, visual artist Laura Anderson Barbata campaigned to have it returned to Mexico.
153 years after her passing, Julia’s body encased in a white coffin covered in white roses was finally buried in a cemetery in Sinaloa de Leyva, a town near her birthplace. Despite all she endured, Julia’s story had something of a happy ending. It’s a pity she wasn’s alive to see it and to know she was remembered as more than a monster.