The Mysterious -and Sad- Case of Julia Pastrana, the ”Ape-Woman”
This could be the best documented and most infamous historical case of a Sasquatch hybrid, who was sadly sold as a slave in Mexico, exhibited in circus and freak shows around the world, and described with all the most pejorative names such as the Ape-Woman, Monkey-Woman, Baboon-Lady, Bear-Woman and ”the ugliest woman in the world”. She was referred to as the Nondescript, meaning she was of an unclassified species and unknown origin, that had Darwin question himself over the role her kind played in the evolution of mankind. Even after her death in Moscow in 1860, she was embalmed with her stillborn son to be displayed in museums for over a century. The most famous photos of her show in fact her mummy years after her death. Her body was finally repatriated in Mexico to receive a proper burial only in 2013.
Julia Pastrana (1834, Sinaloa, Mexico – 25 March 1860, Moscow, Russia) was a performer and singer during the 19th century. Pastrana, an indigenous woman from Mexico, was born in 1834, somewhere in the state of Sinaloa. Her face and body were covered with straight black hair. Her ears and nose were unusually large, her mouth was protruding, with large jaw, thick gums and lips, and an irregular double set of teeth. Pastrana also had a very prominent brow with thick, arched eyebrows. She grew only to 4 feet 5 inches tall and 112 pounds in weight, but what was fascinating about her to most people was that her entire body was covered with hair except the palms of her hands and the soles of her feet.
Multiple versions of Pastrana’s early life exist. Her mother was convinced that some sort of supernatural force was to blame for her daughter’s looks, while the local Mexican tribes blamed the naualli –shape-shifting werewolves (known in Arizona as ‘skinwalkers’)– that were said to cause stillbirths and deformities.
Literature produced by those who managed the freak shows she appeared in described her as belonging to a Native American tribe called “Root Diggers” whose members were similar to apes and lived in caves. In this version, it is said that woman identified only as Mrs. Espinosa was kidnapped by the tribe and held in a cave and took Pastrana with her when she was able to escape.
Another version, which is based on the words of indigenous villagers in Ocoroni, Mexico, Pastrana was a local girl whom they referred to as “wolf woman.” In this version, Pastrana lived with her mother until her mother passed, after which, her uncle sold her to the circus.
Records are blurry, but she was likely born in 1834 somewhere in Mexico, on the Western slopes of the Sierra Madre: a small, dark, hairy infant born to a poor Indian woman. Jan Bondeson writes in A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities: “According to the exaggerated accounts in the contemporary exhibition pamphlets, an Indian woman named Espinosa had become separated from her tribe in 1830, and was believed to have drowned. Six years later, however, some cowboys found her in a cave. She told them that she had been captured by a party of hostile Indians, who had imprisoned her in the cave, but no human beings could be found nearby.” Espinosa had a child with her; she said the child wasn’t hers, but she cared for her and loved her. This child was christened Julia Pastrana. Years after this, Bondeson writes, Pastrana’s “supposed mother” died and the child was sent to a nearby city.
In an article for the Public Domain Review, Bess Lovejoy, author of Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, describes Julia Pastrana’s origins differently, and a little more clearly. She writes, “The local native tribes often blamed the naualli, a breed of shape-shifting werewolves, for stillbirths and deformities, and after seeing her daughter for the first time, Julia’s mother is said to have whispered their name. She fled her tribe—or was cast out—not long after.” Years later, according to Lovejoy, Pastrana and Espinosa (in this account, actually Julia’s mother) were found in a cave and taken to a city, where the child was placed in an orphanage. In both stories, she came out of the womb dark and hairy, with thick lips and wide ears. No one could explain it.
According to the 1857 account in the Liverpool Mercury newspaper, Pastrana was found as a baby living in a cave in the mountains of Mexico with a woman who had been lost in a wilderness for nearly six years. One day, “a ranchero who was hunting for his cattle in the mountains heard a voice in a cave, which he took to be that of a Mexican woman,” the newspaper reported. “He went down to the Copala and got a company of men, who went up and surrounded the cave, and by great stratagem succeed in recovering the lost woman.”
The woman told the ranchero that she had wandered to the top of the mountain after she became lost and had been confined in the cave by a rival tribe called the “Digger Indians.” But the woman, the report said, was found hundreds of miles from any settlement. “She was at the time suckling this child, then about two years old. The woman professed to love this child dearly, though she disclaimed being its parent. The child was christened Julia Pastrana.”
Julia Pastrana’s life
Young Julia spent her childhood in an orphanage, becoming a local celebrity because of her unusual appearance. After hearing about her, the state governor adopted Julia to serve him as a live-in entertainer and maid.
As a young woman, Pastrana had been taken in by the governor of the state of Sinaloa, who wanted to study her curious body. She was a servant girl for him until she was 20, and according to a version, left in 1854, when she decided to return to her tribe, because of how horribly she was treated in the house. On her way back to her village, she met an American, M. Rates, who convinced her to tour with him. But according to Ireneo Paz, Francisco Sepúlveda, a customs official in Mazatlán, purchased Pastrana and brought her to the United States. As a young servant in the governor’s house, in a time when both Mexico and the US practiced the slave trade, it is most unlikely that Julia was allowed to leave on her own will and the meeting of an American agent who convinced her to do a career in freak shows for a circus sounds like a highly romaticized and embellished version of the real deal.
At first, Pastrana performed under the management of J.W. Beach, but in 1854, she eloped with Theodore Lent, marrying him in Baltimore, Maryland.Lent took over her management, and they toured throughout the U.S. and Europe.Before she was brought to Europe, Julia married her next manager, Mr. Theodor Lent, but their marriage happened in secret. Many believed that Julia was quite fond of him and married for love, while Theodor did so in order to gain entire control over her earnings.It would cost 25 cents for adults to see her at Carroll Hall; 15 cents for children.
In 1854, when Pastrana went on tour, she was marketed both as a hybrid of monkey and man and also as a “bear woman.” However, during her performances, she illustrated her intelligence and talent: singing, dancing, and interacting with the audience. Julia gained success as a performer, variously known as “the Ape Woman” or “Baboon Lady.” Her debut took place at the Gothic Hall on Broadway in New York City in 1854. She wore a red dress and sang Spanish songs while dancing the Highland Fling. A huge audience flocked to her shows, looking forward to seeing the “Bear Woman from the wilds of Mexico!” as she was advertised. One newspaper account of the time described her with the following words: “The eyes of this unusual natura beam with intelligence, while its jaws, jagged fangs and ears are terrifically hideous…nearly its whole frame is coated with long glossy hair. Its voice is harmonious, for this semi-human being is perfectly docile, and speaks the Spanish language.”
A sensational pamphlet written by Pastrana’s manager and later husband, Theodore Lent, insinuated that Pastrana’s mother had gotten lost in the mountains and copulated with apes, baboons and bears. He wrote that she was “a hybrid, wherein the nature of woman predominates over the ourang-outang’s.” Funny words about your wife—but Theodore Lent was a particular type, anyway. He met Pastrana while she was touring the US. Lent essentially pimped his wife out: he subjected Pastrana to full medical examinations by the leading doctors in the towns they toured in. More than one source describes Pastrana as resistant to these examinations, during which she was often silent and Lent did the talking.
In 1857, according to the Standard London newspaper, Lent invited members of the press “to an elegant lunch for the purpose of seeing Miss Julia Pastrana in a less restrained sphere of friendly intercourse than the public levees afford.” When Pastrana became pregnant with their child, Lent sold tickets to the public to watch her giving birth. He allowed people to come watch her on her deathbed, just a few days after giving birth to their son (who was born hairy like his mother, and only lived for 35 hours). And when she died after six years of displaying her face and body’s thick, coarse black hair, Lent had her and their infant son stuffed, mounted and displayed like trophies. Later, he married another bearded lady, eventually displaying her alongside the stuffed corpse of his first wife and baby boy.
Newspapers advertised the exhibitions using the most racist and appalling descriptions. The Standard London wrote:“We give Mr. Lent credit for introducing this wonderful being to the world in a perfectly legitimate way. Seriously, the young woman is a remarkable curiosity —not so horridly repulsive as the imaginative artists of the posting-bill school have made her— but yet sufficiently abnormal to create a feeling of sorrow and sadness, which would be more intense but that the young woman herself seems perfectly happy. She is said to be a Mexican by birth, but has unmistakable traces of having negro blood in her veins.”
The reporters were amazed that she was indeed human. In 1857, Pastrana was put on display at the Queen’s Hall in London, where the Liverpool Mercury newspaper called her “one of the most extraordinary beings ever presented to the public,” promising townspeople that a visit to the exhibition “must afford ample scope for philosophical speculation and reflection.”
The Liverpool Mercury wrote in 1857: “At first sight her appearance is rather startling, but on a close acquaintance any preconceived idea of something horrible or monstrous becomes to a great extent dispelled. She exhibits a considerable amount of intelligence, and answers questions put to her with readiness, occasionally displaying an aptitude for wit and appreciation of humour. Miss Julia sings songs in Spanish and English, and converses in both languages with tolerable fluency. As proof of her vocal powers, she sang, ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ in a very pleasing style. She also dances with grace and elegance not to be surpassed by many of the most celebrated professors of art. She has thick black hair all over her person, except her bosom hands, and feet. Her mouth is elongated, her lips very thick. She has double gums in front, both in the upper and lower jaw, with only one row of front teeth, and those teeth in the back gum of the lower jaw. She is good natured, sociable, and accommodating, can speak the English and Spanish languages, dance, sing, sew, cook, wash and iron, these latter accomplishments being acquired, of course, since her introduction to civilized life, having been recovered from a state of nature when she was very young.”
In 1857, in Leipzig, Germany, Julia appeared on stage in a play that was written especially for her. The promotional posters for the show gave her a quite grotesque look, as her lips were given an exaggerated red color, similar to the radicalized images of African-Americans at the time. When the German audience saw Pastrana, they considered her show in bad taste and rejected it. The situation quickly got out of control, causing an intervention by the police who had to stop the show. After that, Julia was more discretely exhibited.
In January 1860, while she was in Moscow, she gave birth to a baby boy who died only two days later. Three days after the boy’s death, Julia herself passed away and the last words on her deathbed were: “I die happy. I know I have been loved for myself.”
Julia was in truth a kind-hearted, gentle woman. She was highly intelligent, an avid learner who taught herself how to sing and dance, and she spoke three languages, including English. She loved to travel, cook, and sew and was willing to submit herself to medical research that included an examination of her condition which puzzled so many doctors back then. For much of her brief, sad life, Julia Pastrana was denigrated, dehumanized and put on display for the amusement —and profit— of others, including her own husband. Her life was defined by the virulent racism of the 19th century. Pastrana became a sideshow oddity, billed as the “missing link” between humans and apes.
After her death
Not long after she died, Lent sold her body and the body of their son to an embalmer, Professor Sukolov of Moscow University. Their mummies became quite an attraction, displayed in the anatomical museum of the University of Moscow. Pastrana’s embalmed body was dressed in a Russian dancer’s dress, her son in a sailor suit. An English zoologist and natural historian who had seen Pastrana in life went to see her again as a stuffed doll, describing her like this: ”The closest examination convinced me that it was the true skin, prepared in some wonderful way; the huge deformed lips and the squat nose remaining exactly as in life; and the beard and luxuriant growth of soft black hair on and about the face were in no respect changed from their former appearance.”
Pastrana and her son’s popularity as an exhibit soon convinced Lent he had to have them back, and so he did. For the next ten years, he took his dead wife and son on tour all over Europe, and displayed their mummies in a glass cabinet. He also brought along his new wife, Marie Bartel, whose name he changed to Zenora Pastrana.
Eventually, Lent retired from show business, bought a wax museum in St. Petersburg and let the Prauscher Museum keep the mummies in return for a large salary. Then, in 1884, he went insane. Bondeson writes that he “began to dance in the streets and to tear up the bank notes and stock certificates he had earned in such a particular way and throw them in the river Neva.” He was taken to an asylum, at which point Zenora took herself on tour with the bodies. In 1889, she gave the mummies to a German named J.B. Gassner, who displayed them at fairs, circuses and anthropological visits.
And this was the fate of Pastrana for the next century, tossed about on display, spending intermittent years in storage, only to be found again and gawked at. The bodies of Pastrana and her son disappeared from the public view. They appeared in Norway in 1921 and were on display until the 1970s, when an outcry arose over a proposed tour of the USA and they were withdrawn from public view. The mummies ended up in Sweden; in 1973, Sweden banned the display of corpses. So into a basement Pastrana and her son went. Three years later, teenagers broke in and ripped off Julia’s arm, thinking she was a mannequin. The police later recovered the bodies, but Julia’s infant was damaged beyond repair. He ended up in the trash. The remains were consumed by mice. Julia’s mummy was stolen in 1979, but stored at the Oslo Forensic Institute after the body was reported to police but not identified. It was identified in 1990 and has rested in a sealed coffin at the Department of Anatomy, Oslo University since 1997. Then, in 2005, an artist in residency in Oslo, Laura Anderson Barbata, began to petition for the burial of Pastrana. After the government of Mexico got involved, Pastrana finally found her escape. On 12 February 2013, hundreds of people attended her Catholic funeral, and her remains were buried in a cemetery in Sinaloa de Leyva, a town near her birthplace.
Marco Ferreri‘s film The Ape Woman (1964) is based on Pastrana’s life story. A musical Pastrana by Australian writers Allan McFadden and Peter Northwood was performed by Melbourne’s Church Theatre in 1989. The production was nominated for five Melbourne Green Room Awards.
A play based on Pastrana’s life, The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World (1998) was written by Shaun Prendergast. A 2003 Texas production of the play staged by Kathleen Anderson Culebro, sister of Laura Anderson Barbato, led to the campaign by Barbato to repatriate Pastrana’s remains from Norway to Mexico.
On 14 October 2013 the in-development movie “Velvet” was announced, based on the life and experiences of Julia Pastrana.
Most descriptions of Pastrana inspire shudders not because of what they reveal about Pastrana, but rather because of what they reveal about the men describing her.
During her life, Pastrana’s management arranged to have her examined by doctors and scientists, using their evaluations in advertisements to attract a larger audience. These examinations were intrusive and inhumane. One doctor, Alexander B. Mott, M.D., certified that she was specifically the result of the mating of a human and an “Orang hutan” (without explaining how the great Indonesian ape made it to Mexico).
The idea of Julia as a semi-human being was established by the physician Alexander B. Mott, who examined her and declared her to be a hybrid of human and orangutan. It’s worth noting that at the time, orangutans were considered as the wildest, most primitive primates with a dangerous sexuality. Julia’s PR also supported this claim, sharing promotional material that underlined her animalistic otherness. In it, she was described as originating from a tribe of “Root-Digger Indians” who were “spiteful and hard to govern,” living with animals and indulging in intimate relations with them.
Another, Dr. S. Brainerd of Cleveland, declared that she was of a “distinct species”. However, Samuel Kneeland Jr., a comparative anatomist of the Boston Society of Natural History, declared that she was human and of Indian descent. Francis Buckland stated that she was “only a deformed Mexican Indian woman”. Zoologist Francis Buckland, who examined Pastrana in 1857, described her as having an “exceedingly good figure” despite being “hideous.”
Charles Darwin discussed her case after her death, describing her 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, one row being placed within the other, of which Dr. Purland took a cast. From the redundancy of the teeth her mouth projected, and her face had a gorilla-like appearance”.
Yale Medical School: Julia Pastrana was born with protruding lips and thick black hair covering her face. Her appearance was caused by two rare conditions: hypertrichosis, a genetic mutation causing her hair growth; and gingival hyperplasia, an abnormal thickening of her gums. Both went undiagnosed in her time.
Official version: She was born with a genetic condition, hypertrichosis terminalis (or generalized hypertrichosis lanuginosa… The latter condition was caused by a rare disease, undiagnosed in her lifetime, Gingival hyperplasia, which thickened her lips and gums.
Other official version: Her peculiar looks were a result of a rare congenital condition known as acromegaloid hypertrichosis syndrome, which covered her body with thick hair and caused unusual facial features, including abnormally thick lips and a large jaw.
Although her (possible) mother lived for six years in a remote cave away from all Humans, with a hairy tribe described as the ”Root Diggers”, the mysterious case of Julia Pastrana has been explained away by modern science as her being afflicted with two extremely rare congenital disorders, one making her hairy and the other one giving her a protruding ‘ape-like’ mouth with a double set of gums and teeth.
The probability of such an eventually is so infinitely small, that it would make her the only known case in history. Cases of bearded women or hairy people have been recorded in a number of instances, yet these cases presenting a single anomaly also occur in such limited number that they can be counted.
On the other hand, accounts of women being ‘captured’ of taken away to live with Sasquatch tribes are numerous among many tribes of North America. There are some Native people to this day, mostly in the North-West, who are known to be first and second generation Saquatch hybrids. Similar stories are found elsewhere around the world, namely the well documented case of Zana, captured in Abkhazia.
If we consider that Zana and Julia Pastrana were of Sasquatch (or Almas) lineage, knowing how they were mistreated, exploited and kept in slavery, and how they both had offsprings with men, we can hardly as Humans judge the Sasquatch people for taking Human wives, without understanding their longer term vision and greater longevity allowing the to oversee the hybridization process through many of our generations, by maintaining their genetic pool close to ours, enriching both our lineages. From the accounts of those who returned from living with the Sasquatch, we can see that they were generally treated in much better ways than Humans treated Julia Pastrana, Zana, Jacko and others.
Julia Pastrana certainly showed all the characteristics of a Sasquatch or a Human hybrid, not only physically, but also in her behaviors, skills and kindness, and by the fact that her son was born hairy. Since some accounts mention that Espinosa said she was not her mother, but only took care of her, Julia might as well have been a full blood Sasquatch. Having been raised by Humans instead of her own people, she was not taught about her interdimensional abilities and behaved just like a Human.
We could affirm that if indeed this is what she was, in spite of the harsh and miserable treatment she was subjected to, she must have become the most famous Sasquatch of our modern history, having been seen by thousands of people on two continents and widely described, only surpassed in fame by the acclaimed Elders of ancient times, Enkidu in Sumer, Hanuman in India and Sun Wukong in China.
We rejoice that her remains finally found rest in her Mexican homeland in 2013 and honor her memory.