Julia Pastrana, known by many monikers, including The Nondescript, The Hybrid, Bear Woman, and most hatefully, the Ugliest Woman in the World, lived a life full of travel, media exposure and extreme human injustice at the hands of her husband. Though her names may have suggested a horrific creature, those who met her marvelled at her grace and poise. Her life begged the universal question: ‘Is it our inner spirit or an outer appearance that defines beauty?’
Julia was believed to have been born to a tribe of ‘Root Digger’ Indians in Mexico. She was born with hypertrichosis, a condition whereby one is covered with excessive long, straight hair. Julia also had enlarged jowls, a bulbous nose and grotesquely formed teeth. She was four and a half feet tall. As a child she spent time in a Mexican orphanage before becoming a ward of the governor of Sinaloa, Mexico, a period of her life she would refer to as ‘privileged’. Others document her position as one of a ‘servant girl’. In any case, Julia was a positive human being whose peers wondered as to whether she was in fact human.
1854 dates her entrance into the performance world, an arena which she was said to have appreciated and enjoyed being part of. ‘The Marvelous Hybrid or Bear Woman’ was what the banner read at the Gothic Hall on Broadway, NY, NY. Onlookers would gawp at her extraordinary features, but as the performance went on they began to admire her for her elegance and talent, for she was talented. She was an accomplished dancer and had a repertoire of operatic arias under her belt which she would perform to thunderous applause. Media tycoons and scientific minds alike were in attendance and reviews included phrases such as ‘harmonious voice’ as well as ‘terrifically hideous’.
She was bought by her handler-turned-eventual husband Theodore Lent, who seemed in every way to care only about how much money Julia could fetch by being such an oddity. He valued her as a commodity, marrying her to keep control of his best product.
In London, the performances continued and again crowds were drawn to her strangeness and its juxtaposition with her lovely inner qualities. She spoke not only her indigenous language but also had superb command of the Spanish and English languages. She was an avid cook, loved travelling, and adored domestic projects such as sewing and knitting. Whilst on tour in Vienna, Lent demanded Julia partake in harrowing medical examinations and forbade her from leaving their apartment during the day. This type of domineering behaviour took place all over Europe as they toured.
Julia gave birth to Lent’s son in March of 1860 and the baby survived only 35 hours. Due to complications at birth, Julia was only able to cling to life for five more days.
The most horrific injustice Lent paid his wife was after her death. He showed ultimate disrespect when passing off the bodies of his newly deceased son and wife to the excited embalmer. Julia and her son were mummified and put on display in a glass case, Julia in one of her ‘fancy dresses’ and her little son on a pedestal beside her wearing a tiny sailor suit. Julia and child proved lucrative to Lent even after their passing.
In 1864 the mummified duo toured Scandinavia together while mysteriously and miraculously Lent met another woman afflicted with hypertrichosis. She looked so much like Julia that Lent, sensing the money making opportunity, renamed the girl Zenora, married her, and began touring her as Julia’s sister.
After interest in the mummies died down, the mother and son pair met a disturbing end in a storage facility in Norway, where in 1976 the young boy was discovered eaten by mice. For now the mummy of Julia Pastrana is filed away somewhere in the back of the basement in the Institute of Forensic Medicine of Oslo.
Julia’s story is a sad, even tragic one, but the silver lining lies within Julia herself, a woman Darwin described in his work The Variation of Animal and Plants Under Domestication. He wrote ‘Julia Pastrana, a Spanish dancer, was a remarkably fine woman – she had a thick and masculine beard’.
Julia saw her deformity as an asset in many ways; she recognized how her looks and locks set her apart and made her unique. She turned her deficiencies into something that she could be proud of, a defining quality, an attribute. She was a beauty in her own right, her husband, the beast.