The Sad Life Of A Happy Woman
By Herbert W. Piekow
Juliana Pastana was buried in her home state of Sinaloa, Mexico one hundred and sixty three years after she died in childbirth in Moscow, Russia. Juliana’s embalmed body might still be in a locked storage room in the University of Oslo’s Norway Research Institute if it were not for the decade long efforts of the Governor of Sinaloa and another Mexican Expatriate, Laura Barbata, who is now a New York based visual artist and who designed costumes for The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastana, The Ugliest Woman in the World. The play that opened in London in 1999 was the story of Juliana’s tragic life, but the play ended with Juliana´s abused body resting in a university laboratory.
It is believed that Juliana was born into a tribe of root diggers in northern Mexico about 1834. Her face and body were covered with straight black hair, which today´s scientist call hypertichosisterminalislanuginose. Her ears and nose were also unusually large and her teeth irregular. In her lifetime the disease of gingival hypoerpasia was not yet diagnosed; this disease also thickened her lips and gums. After examining her, Charles Darwin described her as: “Julia Pastana, a Spanish dancer, was a remarkably fine woman, but she had a thick masculine beard and a hairy forehead, in fact her entire body was covered with coarse hair. . . she had in both the upper and lower jaw an irregular double set of teeth, one row being placed within the other . . . From the redundancy of the teeth her mouth projected, and her face had a gorilla-like appearance.”
This unfortunate, but accurate, description led to Julia being billed as “Ape Woman,” by various circus entrepreneurs. Throughout her life she permitted scientist to examine her body and to ask her questions about her life and how her body functioned. She learned to live with the limitations and oddities of her body, but her heart and soul were human, even if her body was at odds with universal concepts.
In researching this article, I read several versions of how Juliana´s life led her from obscurity in Sinaloa to a European stage life. Juliana was supposedly a servant. But, what seemed most often repeated was that Julia was sold by her family to a travelling circus in 1844. It seems unclear how many circuses traded the deformed young woman before she ended up in a New York freak show, where she met her handler, Mr. Theodore Lent; under his tutelage she practiced dancing, perfected her already gifted singing voice and learned to be a successful show-business woman. When she was invited to Europe she could speak and sing in English and Spanish and quickly learned French and could hold intelligent conversations in German and Russian.
By the time she arrived in Berlin she had changed from freak show entertainer to a stage actress. In Berlin she was cast in Der Curiente, a romantic comedy. Her singing voice was described as perfect and her dancing as elegant. But she was still an oddity and some came to see the Ape Woman perform and they left with being impressed that this four foot five inch being was both gifted and cursed.
Men were both enchanted and curious and she received several proposals of marriage. Her manager feared that he would lose her and refused to allow her to leave the hotel. During this time he married her. Together they continued their tour through Austria, Poland and Russia. On March 20th, Julia gave birth to a hirsute, deformed boy who died within two days. A few days later, the worn-out, heartbroken mother also died of birthing complications. Lent sold both corpses to a Moscow University professor who dissected and mummified both corpses in order to put them on display. Lent sued to get his wife and child returned; after he won he took their mummified bodies on another European tour and earned even more money by exhibiting them in freak shows and circuses. Finally, back in Russia he lost his mind and his new wife, also a hirsute woman, continued to tour with the mummies.
For years Julia and her baby were passed from person to institute until 1976 when the storage vault they were in, in Oslo, Norway was broken into; both bodies were mutilated, the child´s body destroyed. For the next twenty years Julia´s deformed, hairy body was stored in the basement of Oslo´s Institute of Forensic Science. Finally on February 12´th, 2013 Julia was given a Roman Catholic burial Mass in her home State of Sinaloa. In his eulogy, the governor of Sinaloa said: “Julia has been reborn among us, let us never see another woman be turned into an object of commerce.”
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