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Inside the municipal cemetery of a small agricultural town on Mexico’s central Pacific Coast, Laura Anderson Barbata is preparing to make an imprint of a tombstone. It’s the kind of hot, sticky, and bright September day when thunderclouds can arrive in moments and bury the Sinaloan campo under a flood of muddy rapids. The cemetery is as chaotic as a Mexico City market — a jumble of large, ornate crucifixes and concrete crosses, of revolutionary Freemasons buried in silo-like crypts, and nameless bodies under sandy, unadorned plots.
Wearing an elegant black dress, Anderson Barbata, a 55-year-old artist from Mexico City, looks like she should be at a gallery opening. Instead, her supplies — a roll of masking tape, a box of charcoal, and graphite — are spread out near the granite tombstone, and she’s doing a kind of dance with a large sheet of handmade paper. Even the slightest breeze will make it catch like a sail.
In Sinaloa de Leyva, population approximately 5,000, Anderson Barbata’s arrival is a big to-do, and local and state officials have assembled around the cemetery’s cluttered walkways. One holds a massive, rainbow-striped umbrella to shield her from the sun. Others watch curiously as she attaches sheet after sheet to the grave. At one point, the town’s young, charismatic mayor, Saúl Rubio Valenzuela, takes a break from chatting up constituents and colleagues and asks for a turn. The municipal photographer dutifully snaps several photos, and Rubio Valenzuela attempts to beg off.
“Already done?” Anderson Barbata jokes.
“No, no,” he says before sheepishly carrying on.
Anderson Barbata isn’t sure what she’s going to do with the prints yet. Still, she’s compelled to memorialize what is perhaps the cemetery’s most celebrated six-foot plot, the grave of Julia Pastrana, variously known as a renowned but exploited performer, a human curiosity, and, as she’s often called in Mexico, La Mujer Mono, the Monkey Woman.
For a brief stretch in the mid-19th century, Pastrana was a strange sort of icon, one of many famous so-called dwarves, giants, and other disabled people who, with their enterprising managers, had created a roaring global industry that offered a path to lucrative salaries, comfortable retirements, and other trappings of middle- and upper-class life. In just a few years, Pastrana — who stood at four and a half feet, was covered in dark bristle and had a distractingly pronounced jaw — had gone from a largely poor, rural section of Mexico’s Pacific Coast to New York and London, to Vienna and Berlin. In Moscow, in the winter of 1860, just days after giving birth to a baby boy, she was dead.
Yet that was hardly the end. After Pastrana’s husband and manager had her and the infant embalmed, they were transformed into an even stranger exhibit — an exhibit that, like a ghost, drifted around Europe for more than a century. It wasn’t until a hot afternoon last February that Pastrana’s body was returned to Mexico and her zinc-lined, hermetically sealed coffin was buried beneath six feet of concrete. If it weren’t for Anderson Barbata, this fortress of a grave, designed to keep Pastrana “like a fly in an ice cube,” as the Sinaloan ethnologist Joel Barraza put it, wouldn’t exist. Pastrana would be as she was a decade ago, when Anderson Barbata first heard of her — at a university in Oslo, Norway, under the stewardship of an academic who believed her rare physical abnormalities could yield important scientific research.
One hundred and fifty-three years after her death, Pastrana remains an enigma, a woman obscured by history and as mythologized as a flamed-out rock star. Yet the biographical details that can be pieced together offer a disturbing and fascinating portrait that spans the globe and weaves through a long-gone world where extreme disability was a kind of highly profitable commodity.
In life, Pastrana was a freak show celebrity. In death, she became a symbol of colonial-era exploitation and its aftermath. This is the story of her long journey home.
Only the broadest contours of Pastrana’s early life are known. No birth certificate or baptism records have ever been found. She is believed to have been born in 1834 to a tribe of “Root Diggers” — a group of American Indians described as a kind of primate-caveman hybrid. They were diminutive, hairy, and naked. They lumbered around the caves of Sinaloa, taming monkeys and subsisting on bark, grass, and roots. “This singular HAIRY WOMAN is in some respects an exception to her tribe,” said one pamphlet, which is now kept in a rare book and manuscript collection at Yale University. (As with other pamphlet writers of the era, Pastrana’s had a fondness for capitalization.) “She is much larger, walks erect, and has no hair on her bosom, hands, or feet; and humanity seems to predominate.”
Of course, there were no monkeys in the Sierra Madre. Nor were there Indians known as “Root Diggers,” a catchall term whites used in the mid-19th century to refer to American Indians in parts of the Great Basin. Once merely ignorant, “digger” evolved into a “taxonomic stigma,” as a linguistic history of the word put it — a kind of shorthand for a race of bloodthirsty savages.
Exaggeration and fabrication were typical features of freak show literature. As the sociologist Robert Bodgan points out in Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, such pamphlets were designed by promoters and managers — and freaks themselves — not to offer honest biographical portraits, but to sell a product. “People who viewed exhibits were vulnerable to any tale a showman might tell about the origin of the strange creatures they paid to gawk at,” Bodgan wrote. “Having never seen a giraffe or a very small person with a distorted head, one might very well believe that they were from the moon, or from the dark crevices of one of the mysterious landmasses not yet penetrated by Westerners.”
The ethnologist Barraza tells me that if Pastrana was indigenous, she may have been Acaxee, one of several groups of so-called Sinaloa Indians who lived in the mountains outside Sinaloa de Leyva. Yet Pastrana’s appearance was hardly common; she was unique and suffered from two rare physical afflictions that wouldn’t be accurately diagnosed for more than a century.
During my visit with Anderson Barbata to the desperately poor, drug war–ravaged Sinaloan foothills, the mayor, his photographer, and a half-dozen officials decide to tag along from Sinaloa de Leyva. We rumble past girls selling sweet bread and men herding cattle in a caravan of several vehicles — including two police escorts — that look something like the mayor of New York City’s. At one point, after I ask about local indigenous groups, Rubio Valenzuela reaches for the sliding door of our van. With the vehicle still in motion, he throws it open and points at several ordinary-looking women trudging along the side of the road. “Look!” he shouts. “Indígenas!”
Eventually, we arrive in Ocoroni, a largely indigenous village not far from where Pastrana’s family is believed to have lived. In the mid-1800s, the community would have been little more than a few ranches. These days, it has a couple of paved roads, a Pemex station, and a central plaza ringed by cracked pavement and overgrown grass.
I talked to several people whose families had lived there for generations and who grew up hearing about the “wolf woman,” as Pedro Velez, the mayor’s photographer, described her. For Velez, she was pure myth: a scary story that he had heard from his grandparents and that he repeated to his friends in school. “People would say my grandparents were crazy,” Velez says. According to lore passed down from great-great-grandparents, a dwarf was found in a cave a dozen or so miles from Ocoroni, in an area that has since been scarred by mining operations. She was a brought to a ranch, where she lived until a Spaniard took her to a circus. Then, says Cruz Valenzuela Ruiz, a young health department worker, “She disappeared.”
The Sinaloan historian Ricardo Mimiaga tells me that other oral histories from the area suggest that Pastrana was treated like a monster at home. According to these accounts, she was not allowed to use mirrors, and after her mother died when she was young, her uncle sold her to a traveling circus.
These stories correspond somewhat with the freak show literature. The Yale pamphlet states she was not found near Ocoroni, but 280 miles south, near another small mountain town, Copala. This version weaves a tale of a Mexican woman — “Mrs. Espinosa” — being captured and held hostage by cave-dwelling Indians. When Espinosa was rescued by local ranchers, she took a young Indian child with her. “Mrs. Espinosa took her home, had her christened, gave her the name of Julia Pastrana and made her husband godfather,” the pamphlet said.
Pastrana is believed to have been taken in by the governor of Sinaloa, Pedro Sanchez, who treated her as both a trophy — a curiosity to show off to dinner guests — and a child to be cared for: She was taught to read and write by Sanchez’s staff of private teachers. The pamphlet suggests that she was “ill used,” however, so she fled for the mountains; along the way, she met a man named “M. Rates” who, with the help of a friend, “F. Sepulveda,” “induced her to go to the United States with him for exhibition.”
A couple of years ago, Mimiaga uncovered a much darker story line in the writings of Ireneo Paz — the grandfather of the great Mexican writer and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz — that suggests Pastrana was not a willing participant in her departure.
Ireneo was a journalist, author, high-ranking government official, and contemporary of Pastrana who wrote about a “bear woman,” as he called her, in the first volume of his memoirs, published in the 1880s. In his telling, “F. Sepulveda” was Francisco Sepulveda, a notoriously corrupt customs administrator from Mazatlán, the lush coastal city that was, at that time, the capitol of Sinaloa. Mazatlán was also a cosmopolitan hub, and Sepulveda had devised a profitable kickback scheme with well-to-do Europeans who had settled there. Sepulveda had become wealthy enough to buy lands south of Mazatlán, yet he decided that purchasing Pastrana and exhibiting her in New York would be a better investment. So he sold his real estate and made an offer. It is unclear how much she was sold for, but by the winter of 1854, Pastrana had landed in New York City.
The American freak show business was booming in the mid-19th century. According to Bodgan, the scene’s haphazard early days had given way to an industry that was profitable, competitive, and organized. Increasingly laid-back attitudes about entertainment had created demand, and technological advances in photography had turned the mass-produced image into a moneymaker; successful freaks who could capture the public’s imagination — like Chang and Eng, the conjoined twins from Siam (now Thailand) — were celebrities of the era, and managers like the ex-grocery store operator turned showman P.T. Barnum hustled to acquire promising talent.
New York City was central in this burgeoning business. Thirteen years before Pastrana arrived there, Barnum had opened a new museum in lower Manhattan that would revolutionize the industry. Barnum was a notorious embellisher and fraudster, and this new enterprise — the American Museum — was all about entertainment. Alongside wax exhibits of Chang and Eng was a purported mermaid skeleton discovered in the South Pacific; in fact, the “Fejee Mermaid,” as Barnum called it, was an elaborate hoax, a fish sewn to a monkey head. Museums across the country were modeled after Barnum’s creation, and he became one of the most well-known showmen in the world.
Doctors and scientists were lured into the business too. In Pastrana’s pamphlet, for instance, a doctor identified as “Alex B. Mott M.D.” noted that the enigmatic origins of this “Semi-Human Indian” would “have puzzled the Sphinx. She is a perfect woman — a rational creature, endowed with speech which no monster has ever possessed. She is therefore a Hybrid, wherein the nature of woman predominates over the brute — the Ourang Outang. Altogether she is the most extraordinary being of the day.” Another blurb, from a man identified as the former curator of comparative anatomy at the Boston Society of Natural History, noted, “The looks, anatomical conformation, abnormal growth of hair upon the person, sufficiently show that Julia Pastrana belongs to some of the Indian Tribes, supposed to be of Asiatic origin…She is a perfect woman, performing all the functions of the sex.”
When I ask Bodgan which of Pastrana’s departure scenarios made more sense — were freaks an exploited underclass or a strange kind of entrepreneur? — he tells me that generalizations tend to distort the realities of their lives. Consider, for instance, Chang and Eng. In the 1820s, their mother allowed them to be exhibited in the United States for a few thousand dollars. She apparently received only a fraction of what she was promised, but the twins went on to manage themselves once their contact expired. A decade later, they quit the freak show business, bought a plantation and slaves in North Carolina, married, and had more than 20 children. On the other hand, there was Ota Benga, the Congolese Pygmy. In 1906, after being sold into slavery, he was placed in a cage at the Bronx Zoo with an orangutan. There was considerable outrage, and Benga stayed at the zoo for only a short time; according to the authors Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume, he was never able to return to Africa, and he became so grief stricken that in 1916 he shot himself to death.
Pastrana traveled to the United States by way of New Orleans, according to the pamphlet, and by the time she arrived in New York, had a manager named J.W. Beach. On Dec. 27, 1854, in between classified items for the National Poultry Show and the Metropolitan Theater, an advertisement in the New York Times announced that “THE HYBRID, OR SEMI-HUMAN INDIAN FROM MEXICO” was to appear at a Manhattan museum called the Stuyvesant Institute. “Christmas Holidays cannot be more agreeably passed attending the Levees of JULIA PASTRANA, whose dulcet voice enchants the ladies,” the ad said. “Dr. Mott’s impressive epistle concerning the duality of ‘La Mujer Osa’” — the bear woman — “astounds the public. The Troglodyte of ancient days is recognized — ‘four feet in height, with eyes like the owl, and gifted with speech — the link between mankind and the ourang-outang.’”
The crowds and showmen were impressed. According to one account, no one was more interested than Barnum, who sent an “agent” to see if she was, in fact, “as frightful as she was said to be,” a story in the London Review later recounted. But even Barnum could be outmaneuvered. “The agent came, and saw, and perceiving that she was incredibly hideous, at once, with characteristic smartness, made her his wife in order to secure such a treasure for himself.”
The agent was a man named Theodore Lent. In drawings believed to portray him, published in the physician Jan Bondeson’s A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities — which included a chapter on Pastrana — Lent had a thick mustache and pointy goatee, like a gangly, not-yet-bald Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The two were married by the fall of 1855, a seemingly strange union that one West Virginia newspaper casually reported as “an interesting contest” taking place in Baltimore. “The question now is, whether she belongs to her husband, her guardian, or her lessees,” it concluded.
It’s unclear how often freaks married their handlers. Sara Baartman, the South African Khoikhoi woman exhibited as the “Hottentot Venus” in the early 1800s, was married to her manager, and Krao, the diminutive “hairy” girl from Indochina, was adopted by hers. It was, after all, an era in which a husband could control every aspect of his spouse’s life. “That doesn’t mean that some effective bonds weren’t formed,” says Nadja Durbach, a professor of history at the University of Utah and author of Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture. Some managers were both sympathetic and fair — “they profited equally,” she says.
Decades after Pastrana and Lent were married, the German circus historian Hermann Otto wrote that there was more to their bond than finances — that Pastrana, whom he called “the prototype of ugliness,” had “surely married for love,” that she would become “attached” to Lent “with affecting trust,” that he was the only one who would “ever come close to her.” Otto provided a quote as well — “I just remembered,” he wrote in 1895, under the pen name Signor Saltarino, “that she once said with a bright smile, ‘He loves me for my own sake.’”
Yet Otto couldn’t have spoken to Pastrana — he wasn’t born until three years after her death. His conclusions appear to have come from an Austrian actress turned countess named Friederike Gossmann, who apparently knew Pastrana. Though there’s little else to corroborate Otto’s speculation, her love for Lent has become doctrine among some Pastrana experts. As Bondeson recently told The New York Times, “She was definitely in love with Mr. Lent.” When I ask Bondeson about this, he tells me, “There is nothing to suggest that she married Lent from any other motive, but I am not a mind reader.”
As the newlyweds began touring the country — appearing everywhere from the Stone & Eels Hall in Ottowa, Ill., to the South Carolina Institute in Charleston — Pastrana drew large enough crowds that she could work as a single act, sometimes for a week straight, charging a quarter a head — or about $7 today. By the winter of 1857, her routine was well established: She would chat up customers in Spanish and English, which she is believed to have learned in the United States; dance the Highland Fling and polka; and, in a mezzo-soprano, sing romantic tunes. “Where ever she is exhibited, she becomes the pet of all ladies and gentlemen,” one newspaper advertisement announced.
The freak show circuit that stretched from London to Constantinople was lucrative too, so Pastrana and Lent launched what would become a long European tour. They began with a monthlong series of daily appearances at the Regent Gallery in London. Gone was the “Bear Woman” tag that loomed over her American exhibition announcements; now she was the “NONDESCRIPT,” a term used to describe “strange animals and monsters from beyond the seas,” as Bondeson put it. Gone were the brief classified items; now her physical attributes blossomed into 36 lines of highly detailed, highly exaggerated prose. “The flesh upon her forehead is from one-half to three-quarters of an inch in thickness,” a notice in The Observer said. “Her eyes are large and fine, the centre being so jet black that the pupil is scarcely perceptible.” Pastrana, the ad concludes, “is the most singular, curious and pleasing specimen of humanity in the world.”
Before the exhibition opened, private viewings were arranged, and after one, a reporter from the Morning Chronicle gushed about her performance. Wearing scarlet boots, a tight-fitting skirt, and silk panty hose, Pastrana sang an Irish melody — “The Last Rose of Summer” — and danced a bolero, looking every bit like the famed ballerina Fanny Elssler and displaying “a symmetry” that would make the most successful ballet dancers envious.
The surgeon, zoologist, and author Frank Trevelyan Buckland encountered Pastrana at the Regent too, and though he would later lean on the same hackneyed language as Pastrana’s ad copy — recalling her “deep black eyes” and “simply hideous features” — he also described her as sophisticated and charitable, a woman who spoke three languages, had excellent taste in music, and even gave graciously to local institutions.
When Barnum stopped by the Regent, he encountered a very different Pastrana, according to G. Van Hare, a showman who was with Barnum and recalled the episode in his 1895 memoir 50 Years of a Showman’s Life. Lent was out, and when she greeted Barnum, a thick veil covered her face; she refused to lift it until her husband reappeared. “She wasn’t allowed to mix with people, so that the curiosity of the audience wasn’t diminished and her appearance wasn’t devalued,” Otto wrote. “And yet, if she felt that a person wasn’t just gaping at her, that the other person saw in her a thinking creature and not an oddity, she thawed with her childish trust.”
Pastrana wasn’t in London long. As her celebrity grew, she sold out circus performances in Vienna and Budapest. In Berlin, she met with the explorer and naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt. In Leipzig, a play was written for her — though the police intervened after the second night to prevent the “deformed creature” from harming the “theater’s aesthetic frame,” as a reporter put it at the time.
Yet the same reporter understood that Pastrana was a phenomenon, so an interview was arranged. In the two-column, one-and-a-half-page story that followed — headlined “Julia Pastrana, A Human Monster” — a large, illustrated profile was included alongside a lengthy, almost pornographic description of her abnormalities: The “strange hair growth” began with “fine fuzz on the forehead.” The nose was “domed,” had a “wide bridge” and “vast nostrils.” The tongue was a “lumpy muscle mass.” Her expressions did not indicate “a high level of intelligence,” and there was a “melancholy in the eyes, which causes pity.”
Toward the end of the piece, the reporter offered a brief description of the encounter. “As soon as she heard that my companion had the intention of performing magic by making her delightful features appear on the paper using his slate-pencil, she seemed very pleased,” the reporter wrote. Apparently unaware that Lent and Pastrana were married, the reporter concludes, “Of course, the cosmos was not exactly the chosen subject of conversation. With satisfaction she mentioned the success that she earned on her tour through America and England. In fact, she claimed that she obtained more than 20 marriage proposals. When I asked her why she had not blessed one of the candidates with her hand, she replied: ‘The same people had not been good enough.’”
This was the first — and last — interview Pastrana is believed to have given.
By the winter of 1860, Pastrana and Lent were in Moscow, and Pastrana was pregnant. She had a narrow pelvis, and her child, a boy, was large, so when she went into labor that March, doctors anticipated a complicated childbirth. When her son was delivered, on March 20 at 4 p.m., he appeared to have the same physical conditions as his mother: His forehead, neck, shoulders, and back were covered in hair. Shortly after, he “fell into a state of asphyxia,” according to the prominent Russian professor of anatomy J. Sokolov. Thirty-five hours after Pastrana’s baby boy was born, he was dead.
Pastrana had developed a kind of post-childbirth fever that was frequently lethal, and her increasingly fragile health had morphed into something that resembled one of her exhibitions: A crowd of well-to-do observers surrounded her and she declared her love for Lent. It is a Hollywood-scripted scene that very well could be fictitious and has seeped into the Pastrana mythology; while Bondeson, for instance, has written that it “seems” to have happened, as A.E.W. Miles pointed out in the journal of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1973, the first description of these gawking observers didn’t surface until a century after Pastrana’s death. And the dying declaration of love apparently comes from Otto, the circus historian who wasn’t yet alive in 1860.
According to Sokolov, who later wrote about Pastrana in the British medical journal The Lancet, on March 24 at midnight, Pastrana was pronounced dead.
Lent wasted little time figuring out what to do with his wife and son. Not long after their deaths, Sokolov wrote, their bodies were delivered to him for one purpose — to be embalmed, preserved like taxidermied animals, and then made permanent fixtures at the anatomical museum at the University of Moscow. With the boy, there were few signs of decomposition. Pastrana, however, was a different matter. Her skin had turned a “dusky” color, Sokolov wrote. Her belly had inflated, and a “reddish fluid” dripped from her mouth and nose. After injecting them with “decay-arresting mixtures,” he wrote, the “dark parts began to whiten; the spots where corruption had already set in recovered their normal condition, and after a little time became remarkably firm.” The embalming took six months all told.
Accounts of what happened next vary. In one version, Lent paid to have Pastrana embalmed but never agreed to allow Sokolov to keep them. In another, Lent is said to have been so impressed by Sokolov’s embalming techniques that he reneged on their deal. “Mr. Lent thought that he could make a fortune by exhibiting her,” recalled Van Hare. Either way, Lent produced their wedding certificate and enlisted American diplomats in Russia to affirm the document; they complied, and Lent retrieved the embalmed bodies for himself.
Lent had sold his wife and the boy for 500 pounds, Van Hare wrote. He got them back for nearly twice that.
By the spring of 1862, Pastrana was again drawing headlines — and the gaze of scientists — in London. This time, she was at the Burlington Gallery. And she was with her baby boy. “Having had some experience with human mummies, I was exceedingly surprised by what I saw,” wrote Buckland, the author and historian. She was atop a table, wearing a handmade red dress that she’d worn when she was alive; her limbs, chest, and face were perfectly preserved. Buckland had visited the gallery with a colleague — a prominent taxidermist — who was also stunned. “He agrees with me that [Pastrana] is the most wonderful specimen of the art of preserving ever brought before the public notice, and both he and I are at a loss to know the means which have been employed,” Buckland wrote.
It doesn’t appear that the public was as taken. By the spring of 1865, Lent was marketing a new exhibit — a woman he claimed was Pastrana’s sister. She was 16 years old, five feet tall and, as one reporter described her, “resembling her departed relative in her baboon-like features.”
Her name, he claimed, was Miss Zenora Pastrana.
In Bondeson’s telling, Zenora had nothing to do with Julia. She was from Karlsbad, Sweden, and had hirsutism — a condition that causes women to have male-like hair growth. Lent met her and married her, and by the following year the couple was touring Europe, even though Lent had told her father he wouldn’t exhibit her. “For more than ten years, they signed lucrative contracts with Europe’s finest circuses and gave private performances for several royal families,” Bondeson wrote. Meanwhile, a museum in Vienna paid Lent to house Julia Pastrana and her son. When Lent and Zenora retired in Saint Petersburg in the 1880s, the exhibit was still there; it wasn’t until after Lent suffered an “acute weakening of the brain,” as Bondeson described it, and was placed in an insane asylum, where he presumably died, that Zenora Pastrana retrieved them.
She didn’t keep Julia Pastrana and her son long. Throughout the 1890s and early 20th century, they bounced around Germany, from owner to owner and fair to fair, until the early 1920s, when a carnival operator outside of Oslo named Håkon Jaeger Lund bought them. They were part of a wax medical cabinet that, among other things, contained life-size human figures that portrayed what infectious diseases like gonorrhea and syphilis did to the body. By the 1950s, when Lund’s son, Hans, ran the traveling carnival, and his grandson, Bjørn, was just becoming acquainted with the family business, Pastrana and her son were rarely being exhibited. “Time had passed,” Bjørn Lund tells me. “There was really no culture for these things in Norway.”
There was, apparently, in the United States.
That, at least, is what Milton Kaufman thought. Kaufman was the colorful American operator of a traveling carnival, Gooding’s Million Dollar Midways. While Kaufman was in Norway in the early 1970s, he had a drink with Hans and Bjørn one night at their home in Oslo. When Hans began telling Kaufman about Pastrana, he was immediately intrigued. “[Kaufman] said, ‘We had to come to the United States — this is exactly what we are showing,’” Bjørn Lund recalls.
During the summer of 1972, the Lunds took their first trip to the U.S., hauling the Pastrana exhibit from Brockton, Mass., to Savannah, Ga. They were exhibited in a three-sided glass case that contained an ornate, silk-lined wooden carriage. Pastrana was still wearing her red dress; one arm was akimbo, the other dangled at her side. Her beard was gone, and she appeared stoic, as if she’d just breathed in a deep gulp. Her son, who was perched beside her on a pole, stood ramrod straight. Little publicity accompanied the tour, Lund tells me, and few seemed to find the exhibit — which included a poster detailing Pastrana’s history — compelling.
“Nobody in the States believed that it was a real thing,” Lund says. “They said, ‘This is bogus. This is wax.’”
After the Lunds returned to Norway, they took the Pastrana exhibit on the road again — this time as far as Sweden — but were dogged by negative publicity. The Catholic Church in Oslo believed Pastrana should be buried, while scientists argued to preserve her for future research, recalls Berit Sellevold, a retired archaeologist with the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage. “There were these great debates between those rather august institutions,” Sellevold says. “They didn’t really resolve.”
By the time Hans died in 1976, Bjørn Lund had had enough of the controversy. He ran the family business, so he placed Pastrana and her son in a storage warehouse in Rommen, an Oslo suburb. As the Norwegian journalists Christopher Hals Gylseth and Lars O. Toverud later wrote, the building, with its corrugated iron and shuttered windows and doors, made an intriguing target for the young and thrill-seeking; the same year that Hans died, four young friends bent open a metal plate that protected a warehouse window and burst into its arched, hangar-like interior. What they found was a teenager’s dream: There were go-karts. There were bumper cars. And there was the glass case that contained Pastrana and her son, who by then looked like he had been devoured by rodents. “We never dreamed they were actual people,” one of the boys, Tore Skøfterd, later said.
They grabbed Pastrana and her son, believing them to be mannequins, and, with police arriving at the scene, darted from the building. All they managed to escape with was an arm that had been torn from one of the bodies — an arm they soon realized was human and which they promptly turned over to the authorities. “The police generously viewed the matter as a boyish prank,” Gylseth and Toverud wrote. Shortly after, the group broke in again. This time, Pastrana and her son had disappeared.
It would be three years before Lund noticed they were gone.
When I ask Bjørn Lund if this bothered him, he replies, “Of course I didn’t want people to get in and destroy these things. But I didn’t have many thoughts about Julia. I didn’t spend any time on it.”
In Bjørn’s storage warehouse, one last remnant of Pastrana remains. There, amid a clutter of chairs and tables, stacks of tires and life-size carnival figures, is the worn wooden carriage in which she once stood.
In 1990, Jan Bondeson was a young doctor studying for a Ph.D. in rheumatology in Lunde, Sweden. He’d read about Pastrana in, among other places, Frederick Drimmer’s Very Special People, a best-seller published in 1973 that purported to reveal the “loves and triumphs” of human oddities. (Drimmer divided his subjects by type, and among “The Hairy People,” “The Little People,” and “The Armless and Legless Wonders,” were “Very, Very Special People,” a category in which he placed Pastrana.)
Bondeson had always been interested in Pastrana — who was still missing — and a colleague tipped him off about where she might be found. So Bondeson picked up a copy of Crime Journal, a softcore porn–true crime hybrid that also dabbled in human interest stories about long-dead freak show performers. “The point of that article was that the mummy of Pastrana still existed, and it was kept in the basement of the department of forensic medicine at the University of Oslo,” Bondeson tells me.
After reading about Pastrana in Crime Journal, Bondeson, who was also a correspondent for a small Swedish medical journal, decided to examine her. So he wrote to the department director, who granted him access, and Bondeson soon found himself in a dark basement, staring into a closet where, next to a Hoover vacuum, Pastrana’s nearly naked body was attached to a large board. All that was left of her original costume was a pair of boots. She was missing an arm, and one of her eyes was gone. There was no sign of her son, and Bondeson later wrote in his book that he had been eaten by mice.
Bondeson stayed for half the day. He took hair samples and radiographs and examined the techniques used to preserve her body. Using these results, Bondeson diagnosed Pastrana’s afflictions. The overgrown hair was most likely caused by a genetic defect known as congenital generalized hypertrichosis terminalis, a condition that, unlike hirsutism, causes excess hair growth all over the body. The protruding jaw, meanwhile, could be traced to gingival hyperplasia, which buried her teeth beneath overdeveloped gums. “Julia Pastrana represents an extreme case,” Bondeson later wrote, adding, “perhaps the most extreme of all time.”
After Bondeson published his findings, a frenzy over Pastrana’s body started anew. By the mid-1990s, competing requests — some serious, some from “various quacks and fortune hunters,” as Bondeson puts it to me — were made: Should she be a medical museum exhibit? Should she be burned on a funeral pyre? Should she be buried? “There were so many people, so many opinions,” recalls Per Holck, an anatomist and retired professor of medicine at the university. “We did not know where to bring her.”
In the spring of 1995, the director of the University of Oslo convened a committee to evaluate Pastrana’s case. By November, a conclusion had been reached: Pastrana had been treated in an “ethically reprehensible” manner. Though an administrative board at the university argued that she should be buried in Norway, she was, instead, placed in a sealed coffin and stored in a temperature-regulated, moisture-controlled room at the university. There, amid a vast assortment of bones and other archaeological relics known as the Shreiner Collection, she was under the care of Holck, who believed her body could be useful. “We thought her disease, this special rare condition, could be used for scientific research,” he tells me.
The few facts of Pastrana’s life that are known have become fodder for all manner of creative interpretation. In 1961, an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents focused on a Pastrana-like character who seeks revenge against her handlers. In 1964, an Italian film, La Donna Scimmia, “The Ape Woman,” imagined Pastrana as an introspective Neapolitan who falls in love with her shrewd manager. In the play The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World, she isn’t seen at all; most productions are staged entirely in the dark.
After The True History opened in England in 1998, an American theater producer named Kathleen Culebro saw it in a small community center just outside London in 2002. Culebro was impressed, so she brought it to the United States, first to Fort Worth, Texas, then to the Greenwich Street Theater in New York. She enlisted her sister, Laura Anderson Barbata, for costume design — this production’s first three minutes were lit. The play ended on a grim note, with Pastrana telling the audience that she was 26, and in a dark closet in Norway where no one was allowed to see her. Shortly after the play’s six-week run in New York began in the fall of 2003, someone suggested using it to help bring Pastrana’s body back to Mexico.
“We thought, let’s start a petition at the theater, because anyone who sees this show is going to want her repatriated,” Culebro recalls. She wrote a brief cover letter, which she attached to a yellow notepad that contained approximately 700 signatures, and sent the package to the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C. “We were so naive,” Culebro says, adding that she never received a response.
Culebro moved on, and Anderson Barbata went back to work on a project that involved stilt-dancers in Trinidad. Then, in 2005, Anderson Barbata was offered a residency in Oslo by the Office of Contemporary Art. When she began, she didn’t have a project in mind, but she immediately found herself drawn to Pastrana. She, too, was from Sinaloa. She’d grown up in Mazatlan, where her father managed a restaurant and where, as a child, she’d danced for his American and Canadian patrons. She’d also been moved by her sister’s play. “How scary,” she says, “that while you’re alive, you can be exploited to that degree. And then it doesn’t stop there when you die. It goes on. I always say, when Julia walks in, be prepared. You’re going to be spend a lot of time with her.”
Pastrana raised all kinds of important issues as well — issues of human trafficking and objectification and, most pressing, what to do with her now. “How do you reconstruct something that’s been damaged?” Anderson Barbata asks. Repatriating her body to Mexico would likely be her goal, but she was hardly ready to make a formal request. First, she needed to find out as much as she could: where Pastrana was being stored, who was in charge, what their ethical obligations were.
The Shreiner Collection, she soon found out, had long been a magnet for controversy. Like other collections in Europe and the United States, this was a relic of colonialism — it was the largest repository of skulls belonging to the Sami people, the ethnic minority group indigenous to Northern Europe and Russia. Many of these skulls were obtained by pillaging churchyards and graves; two came from a mid-19th-century uprising, when rebel leaders were caught, convicted of killing Norwegian officials, and decapitated.
At the time, ethnic origin research was booming, the most cutting-edge of which was thought to come from the examination of skulls. So the heads were sent to the anatomical institute in Oslo. (One was later found in a museum in Copenhagen.) In 1985, when a descendant of one of the dead men began demanding the return of one of the skulls, the university refused. Holck, who became the Shreiner’s curator in the mid-1980s, tells me the that descendant wasn’t, in fact, related, and he was thus barred from releasing it, but Sellevold, the archaeologist, put it this way: “These were Sami skulls, and Sami skulls were regarded with special interest because they were a minority population in Norway.” A “big and bitter fight” followed, Sellevold says, and other descendants joined in, as did the Sami Parliament and various Norwegian government agencies. In the end, Holck was overruled by university leadership, and the skulls were buried.
In the summer of 2005, the curator at the Office of Contemporary Art, Christiane Erharter, wrote an introductory note to Holck on behalf of Anderson Barbata, explaining who she was and how she was interested in finding out more about Pastrana. Holck agreed to respond to a “few lines,” as he put it in an email; Anderson Barbata followed up with 19 detailed questions. She wanted to know how, for instance, the collection benefited the advance of science and medicine, and what, as the Shreiner’s curator, Holck thought were appropriate and inappropriate uses of indigenous human remains. She wanted to know what kind of medical research had been conducted on Pastrana, and why her body, instead of just a tissue sample, needed to remain there.
On Sept. 2, 2005, Holck responded with a series of brief answers. “So far no examinations on Julia Pastrana have been carried out, nor have they been planned,” he concluded. “Of course we are aware of her being a living human once — as all our specimens in the Anatomical institute. Therefore we treat them with dignity.”
When I ask Holck if he remembered the exchange, he says he’s been contacted by numerous people over the years who wanted to see or exhibit Pastrana, and his impression was that Anderson Barbata was no different. He’d said as much a decade ago, in the back-and-forth with Erharter, an idea that she quickly dispelled. In Anderson Barbata’s view, Holck’s brevity meant that she’d have to begin elsewhere. So she published a death notice in a local newspaper and — though she wasn’t positive Pastrana was Catholic — she organized a mass in a small Oslo church. “I wanted to do something just for her,” Anderson Barbata says. “That was the objective.”
She also met a woman named Hilde Nagell, who directed an advisory board that had been set up in the aftermath of the Sami controversies. The board was designed to weigh the ethics of human remains research, and Nagell — who attended the mass — appeared far more sympathetic than Holck. “I wanted to bring it as a case for the committee,” Nagell tells me. So Anderson Barbata again submitted her long list of questions. Postal snags and bureaucratic sluggishness gummed up this process for three years, but when the board’s four-page response arrived in the summer of 2008, their message was clear to Anderson Barbata: Find Pastrana’s descendants. Get them involved.
She thought it would be fairly easy to track down relatives through DNA or by searching for Mexicans with congenital hypertrichosis. Yet no DNA sample had ever been taken, and she discovered that Pastrana’s variety of hypertrichosis rarely manifests, even in families where it is present.
So she reached out to Sinaloan historian Mimiaga, who began trying to track down birth records and ancestors. This effort also yielded little. There were no claims of lineage and only a few biographical details revealed through oral histories. Anderson Barbata then changed her strategy. She argued that Pastrana wasn’t all that different than Sara Baartman, whose remains had been housed in a Paris museum for nearly two centuries and who had, in South Africa, become a powerful symbol of colonialism’s long shadow. After Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, he championed her repatriation. Eight years later, Baartman’s body was returned home for burial.
Now, Anderson Barbata just needed her Mandela.
Mario López Valdez, the governor of Sinaloa, was a successful businessman who’d ascended the local hierarchy of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI), the entrenched, powerful political machine that ruled Mexico through most of the 20th century. Still, in the winter of 2012, Anderson Barbata sent López Valdez a note, and copied his chief of staff, Gustavo Zavala.
Zavala, a young former lawyer with the prestigious National Autonomous University of Mexico, had grown up in Culiacán, the heat-and-crime-choked capital of Sinaloa, but he’d never heard of Pastrana. To him, this tale of a 150-year-old indigenous Mexican trapped in Norway seemed incredible. “It instantly captured my attention,” he tells me. “I saw it from the perspective of human rights. What they did to her after she died was shameful. What her husband did was shameful.”
It didn’t hurt that the Mexican daily newspaper Reforma had just published a series of articles about Pastrana and Anderson Barbata’s recent efforts. Zavala read them, then talked to the governor.
“He said, ‘Look into it,’” Zavala recalls. By March, López Valdez had joined the cause.
Soon, Mexico’s secretary of foreign relations was involved, and the governor had contacted Holck and the ethics board. “The citizens of Mexico under law have rights during their life and after it,” López Valdez wrote in a letter in March 2012. Numerous agencies were prepared to aid in the repatriation process. Several more were ready for what came after that. “[We] are prepared to receive Julia Pastrana’s body for her suitable burial, for which I address you with respect and urgency,” he wrote, “trusting that you will analyze the situation to resolve it wisely, considering the respect for human dignity and a high sense of justice.”
On a bright, clear afternoon in February, a behemoth white SUV rolled down the bumpy gray streets of Sinaloa de Leyva. As a procession of hundreds trailed behind, cameramen and photographers angled for shots, and the blare of banda bounced off the squat buildings en route from the city center to the municipal cemetery. Inside the SUV was a painted wooden casket draped in white roses; inside that was a zinc box. Pastrana was home.
In Norway, there had been considerably less rancor this time around. Holck had only requested that a DNA sample be taken (it was), and that a proper burial be ensured in Mexico. After a quiet ceremony was held by the university, Pastrana’s body was flown to Mexico City, then to Culiacan, and then driven to Sinaloa de Leyva.
There, on Feb. 12, in the central plaza, Pastrana’s coffin was placed on a s