Photo: Julia Pastrana
Through her life, and many years after her death, Julia Pastrana was exhibited around the world as a freak show. Today, a Mexican artist struggles to repatriate her remains.
In the 19th century, Sinaloa born Julia Pastrana became famous in circuses and fairs throughout the world; a rare combination of hypertrichosis and gingival hyperplasia caused her entire body to be covered with thick, black hair and her gums to grow inside her mouth deforming her jaw, making her look like an ape.
She had a melodious mezzo-soprano voice, played the guitar and danced with grace. She was apparently sweet and polite, an avid reader, very intelligent, and spoke 3 languages fluently. She spent her life however, traveling the world as a freak act managed by Theodore Lent, a twisted man who married her to be able to control her and profit from her appearance.
In 1860, Julia became pregnant and Lent sold tickets for the delivery, which happened during a Moscow tour; the baby was born with his mother’s disorder, and died within 35 hours surrounded by people who had purchased tickets. Julia died two days later.
Lent had the bodies of his wife an child mummified, and continued showing them around the world. He sold the remains before he died, and until 1973, Julia’s remains toured the entire world.
From there on, the mummified beaten up body of Julia traveled through forensic institutes and universities and ended up in Norway, at the Medical Sciences Institute in Oslo.
Laura Anderson Barbata, a Mexican artist living in Oslo heard the sad story and has waged a legal battle to repatriate Julia’s remains to México since 1996.
In 2008, Anderson Barbata’s investigation found that Julia’s remains have been stored in Oslo’s Medical Sciences institute for decades, pending an investigation on her unique condition, an investigation nobody has cared to delve into.
The Institute has said that they would seriously consider returning the remains, if Julia Pastrana’s relatives wanted her to be buried in Mexico in a Catholic ceremony. Unable to find any living relatives of Pastrana, Anderson Barbata hopes to find a record of baptism or first communion to justify the return of the body for moral reasons.