Have you ever dreamed of running away to the circus?
If so, we’re sure you weren’t interested in touring the world because you were billed as “the ugliest woman in the world” and wanted to join the exhibition of human wonderment and oddities.
Born in Mexico in 1834, Julia Pastrana was an indigenous woman living with two very rare diseases: generalized hypertrichosis lanuginosa, which covered her body and face in thick hair, and gingival hyperplasia, which thickened her lips and gums. She took part in 19th-century exhibition tours throughout Europe, where she entertained people with her bear-like features.
Her life story is both sad and fascinating.
In 1859, Pastrana became pregnant after marrying Theodore Lent, an impresario who was traveling at freak shows with her across Europe and the United States. Unfortunately, her infant son also inherited her hypertichosis and passed mere hours after his birth in Moscow. Pastrana also died after a few days from severe complications.
Following the death of both his wife and son, Lent embalmed their bodies and began exhibiting them while on tour. Lent also remarried after meeting a bearded woman in Germany, whom was later billed as Pastrana’s sister, Zenora. The two of them traveled around performing alongside the dead bodies.
When Lent passed away, Pastrana and her son’s bodies were put on display by a Norwegian fairground operator in the early 1970’s. After changing hands over multiple decades, both bodies ended up at the University of Oslo in Norway.
“Imagine the aggression and cruelty of humankind she had to face, and how she overcame it. It’s a very dignified story,” said Mario Lopez, the governor of Sinaloa state who lobbied to have her remains repatriated to her home state for burial. “When I heard about this Sinaloan woman, I said there’s no way she can be left locked away in a warehouse somewhere,” he said.
On Tuesday, crowds of people assembled in the small town of Sinaloa de Leyva to finally lay Pastrana to rest. She was buried in a white coffin embellished with white roses.
New York-based artist Laura Anderson Barbata, who led the decade-long campaign to have Pastrana returned to Mexico for a proper burial, said “The mass was beautiful. I was very moved. In all these years I’ve never felt so full of different emotions.
It is so wonderful to hear that she has finally been treated with the dignity that was denied her in both life and death.