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Julia Pastrana: “Ape Woman” or “Bear Woman” who was mummified by her husband

There are hardly any exact information about Julia Pastrana. Why did she look like that? Or who was her family? Not minding her peculiar looks, she had a life similar to the lives of the ordinary people.

She was born in 1834 in the household of Pedro Sanchez in Sinaloa, Mexico. Since birth, Julia was diagnosed with a harsh genetic condition – generalized hypertrichosis lanuginose and it was unknown at that time.

Julia Pastrana
Julia Pastrana

Her face and body were covered with hair, she had very a large nose and ears and her teeth were irregular.

Her looks resembled an ape. However, she managed to cross the border and moved to the United States. In fact, she was a wonderful performer who was able to sing, dance and entertain the public.

At first, she worked with J.W. Beach who was her manager and she had her first performance at the Gothic Hall on Broadway in New York City. She wore a red dress, sang Spanish folk tunes and danced the Highland Fling.

Julia Pastrana, Lithography by V. Katzler, 1860
Julia Pastrana, Lithography by V. Katzler, 1860

In 1854, she met her future husband, Theodore Lent. They married and Lent took the role of being Pastrana’s manager. They travelled together traveled around the States and Europe. She was known as “the Ape Woman” , “the Bear Woman” or “the Baboon Lady.”

But Lent wasn’t managing only her stage career but was also touring with Pastrana to exhibit her in front of professors and doctors. He even made up a story that Pastrana’s mother left her tribe and went in the mountains where she copulated with apes and after few years was found with her baby (Julia) in a cave.

Julia Pastrana, "the nondescript", advertised for exhibition of the famous bearded Lady. Photo credit
Julia Pastrana, “the nondescript”, advertised for exhibition of the famous bearded Lady. Photo credit

While she was examined by doctors, Pastrana didn’t talk. Apparently, she laid down still while her manager (and husband) did the talking. All doctors had different theories about her. One theory stated that she indeed was a hybrid of a human and Orang Hutan. Another doctor believed that Pastrana was a “distinct specie”.

The zoologist Francis Buckland had said that she was “only a deformed Mexican Indian woman”, while the anatomist and naturalist Samuel Kneeland, Jr. claimed that she was human of Indian descent. His claim was probably most reliable. Pastrana was indeed of an indigenous decent – the Paiute group.

In 1860, when Pastrana was only 26, while on tour in Moscow, she gave birth to a baby that seemed to have the same condition as the mother. The child died after a couple of hours and after few days Pastrana also died suffering postpartum complications.

Julia Pastrana, image from a 1900 book, showing her embalmed remains
Julia Pastrana, image from a 1900 book, showing her embalmed remains

Instead of organizing the funeral, Lent went to a professor at the Moscow University and asked him to mummify his wife and son. And so it happened. Two years later, Lent found another bearded woman and married her. Oh, and he called her Zenora Pastrana. According to some records, he died in 1884 in a mental institution in Russia.

Another strange but true story from us: The sad story of Joseph Merrick – the real “Elephant Man”

The mummified bodies of Pastrana and her child were nearly forgotten until 1921 when they appeared in Norway. They were exhibited until 1970. When the bodies were sent for an exhibition in the USA, vandals broke into the storage facility and mutilated the baby’s mummy.

Tijana Radeska

Tijana Radeska is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News