The Nondescript

  [disturbing images]


The human condition can reach extremes of physicality thanks to disease or heredity. 

Deformed limbs, grotesque growths, or even gigantism may be byproducts of genetics, or a sudden pituitary gland problem, or any number of other misfirings in the biochemical organism known as the human body.

For those people with extremes in their physicality beyond their control (conditions unlike morbid obesity, e.g., the circus “Fat Lady”) such as being born without limbs (the “Human Torso”) or having a genetic condition that causes the fingers and toes to remain fused in claw-like flippers (the “Human Crab”), employment opportunities, particularly in times predating the 20th Century, were extremely limited.

Because of their surprising physicality, and the startling nature of their conditions as perceived by the “normal” people comprising the bulk of any society, such different people were called “freaks”.  And because many had physical impairments that perhaps kept them from performing more strenuous physical labor, they had to find other work. 

Traveling exhibitions (called “menageries”) and circus side shows became renowned in many cases for the quality of their “freaks” – the more deformed or physically aberrant the person, the greater the draw.  And while many of the “exhibits” in the freak shows were there voluntarily as their only means of support, abuse and exploitation were common in ways almost unimaginable today, with beatings, deprivations, and show operators absconding with what little money the hapless “attraction” might earn all being standard operating procedure.

One such side show attraction was the British “Elephant Man”, Joseph Carey Merrick (1862-1890).  His physical deformities, caused by several concurrent medical disorders, left him with a twisted body covered in warty skin growths and bony protuberances.  His physical appearance was so repulsive that as a teenager, when selling women’s notions (handkerchiefs, etc.) door-to-door, his hawking license was pulled by the issuing authority.  This was done for the sake of preserving public decency because his appearance was so frightening.

But before the Elephant Man made his mark in the world of human novelty exhibitions there was another specimen whose appearance was also hideous by the day’s standards of “normal beauty”. Julia Pastrana (color litho advert)Credit: public domain

This was a young adult Mexican, billed as the “Ape Woman”.  She was so homely in her appearance by societal standards that at one time she was labeled “The Ugliest Woman in the World” (most certainly a hurtful and painful moniker to carry around).  Her exploitation went beyond life – her callous, opportunistic husband continued making money by having her embalmed body (and that of their newborn son) exhibited in glass cases.  She and the infant were shipped around as a side show attraction for years after her death.  And it was only on February 12, 2013 (several weeks shy of 153 years from her date of death) that her repatriated mummified remains were buried in Mexico. 

Her name was Julia Pastrana.

Call Me “Harry”
There are many genetic disorders that present themselves in unusual ways.  Among them is alopecia totalis, a condition in which the human body rejects its hair – all of it – leaving the “victim” completely bald with no eyelashes, eyebrows, pubic, or other body hair.  This is not a painful or otherwise debilitating condition, but because of the standards of beauty in any given society a person with alopecia totalis may feel ugly (or “cosmetically challenged”, especially if the sufferer is a woman).

At the other extreme is a condition called hypertrichosis.  This bizarre malady leaves a person with excess body hair furring the face, back, legs, arms, hands, and feet in its most extreme form.  In the anonymous "Wolf Boy" (c late 1800s)Credit: public domainpast, such people were looked upon as freaks of nature, and many were considered to be either “throwbacks” to an earlier model of humanity in evolution or were believed to be the offspring of an animal mated with a human.  

The most famous hirsute “freak” was Jo-Jo, the Dog-Faced Boy. [The attendant image is not of Jo-Jo, merely that of another 19th Century “Wolf Boy” for illustrative purposes only.]  Before the mid 20th Century, such people would have had difficulty being accepted in society; many would have been forced to work as “freaks” to make a simple living. Though it is mostly males who have this condition, some females can have it as well; the “Bearded Lady” of almost any self-respecting circus sideshow likely had the condition (unless she was a pure humbug with glued-on whiskers).

It was this inherited hairiness in a woman that created a novelty star.

Ape Girl
“The Ugliest Woman in the World” was born in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, on that country’s western shore where it opens onto the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean.  The indigenous people of the mountainous areas were of mixed Spanish and native Mexican Indian ancestry or pure-blood natives.
Sinaloa, Mexico environsCredit: American Peoples Encyclopedia, 1963

In the superstitious culture of these mountain people, known as “Root Digger” Indians, a baby born covered in hair was probably not taken as a good omen.  Thus, when Julia Pastrana entered the world in 1834, an infant covered in straight black hair, it is unclear what her future would hold.  While she did not fall victim to superstitious infanticide little is known about Julia’s childhood in Sinaloa’s mountains.  Her condition is called hypertrichosis terminalis today.  It is recognized as a genetic disorder, producing excessive body hair. 

As time wore on it became clear, though, that there was more at work on young Julia.  Her ears and nose were disproportionately large, giving her a Negroid appearance (and at one time it was thought she was of African ancestry until proved otherwise).  She also had very thick lips and gums which added to her simian appearance. This condition today is known by the name gingival hyperplasia

Finally, to add to her jutting jaw’s prominence, Julia also developed two sets of permanent teeth, one row behind the other. This was remarked upon by no less a personage than Charles Darwin (who never met the living Julia).  Of a study done later, he wrote this entry in one of his published books:

“Julia Pastrana, a Spanish dancer, was a remarkably fine woman, but she had a thick masculine beard and a hairy forehead; she was photographed, and her stuffed skin was exhibited as a show; but what concerns us is, that she had in both the upper and lower jaw an irregular double set of teeth, one row being placed within the other, of which Dr. Purland took a cast. From the redundancy of the teeth her mouth projected, and her face had a gorilla-like appearance.”

Show Time
By 1854 when she was 20 years old, Julia had reached her full growth of 4 feet and 5 inches tall.  Though diminutive, she was buxom.  She somehow managed to leave Sinaloa that year.

Her first documented appearance was in the United States.  She stood as an exhibition in a theater on New York’s Broadway, billed as “The Marvelous Hybrid or Bear Woman”.  Her manager was a manJulia Pastrana ("Bear Woman" news advert)Credit: public domain named M. Rates.  [Rates claimed he found her in Sinaloa working as a domestic for that state’s governor.  Another story is that he bought her outright from a Sinaloa woman – possibly Julia’s own mother.] 

Julia drew much attention from the New York scientific community and from the media.  P.T. Barnum even paid a call.  One newspaper noted she was “terrifically hideous” though possessing “a harmonious voice”.  Thus, it can be concluded that in this earliest phase of her career Julia did more than merely stand stoically in solitude to be ogled – she probably did much in the way of singing and bantering with her audience to earn more money in her showings.

Disbelieving her ethnicity, many professionals wanted to examine her (most thinking that she was nothing more than an extremely unpleasant looking African-American woman).  Absurdly, one medical doctor claimed – and certified – she was the result of mating a human with an orangutan. [This may have been a publicity gimmick, bought and paid for, to enhance Julia’s box office receipts in the future.]   Another doctor stated she was a member of a separate human species all together.

More enlightened people stepped forward, however.  A comparative anatomist affiliated with the Boston Society of Natural History reported that Julia was indeed human, and she was of Indian ancestry.  Another scholar merely confirmed those findings, saying Julia was “only a deformed Mexican Indian woman”.  [Specifically, it is believed that Julia was of the Paiute group.]  She was examined several times, though, to dispel the accusation that she was merely an overly unattractive African-American.

Southern Paiutes (c. 1880)Credit: public domainWhen Julia moved on to Cleveland, Ohio, it was under the wings of a new promoter (and it was in Cleveland she was declared a “new species”).  All medical opinions were dutifully reprinted in promotional materials advertising her upcoming shows, and public curiosity was appropriately piqued by such outrageous claims.  

In spite of her awkward appearance, Julia was reputedly very graceful and gracious.  As a lark she was invited to attend a military gala; she went, and many of the more adventurous young men there danced with her and found her to be quite charming. When appearing in Boston later – under the strangely incongruent moniker “Hybrid Indian: The Misnomer Bear Woman” – she impressed her clientele with her grace and beautiful singing voice.  As a result of her fine showing, she was booked as an “exhibition” at Boston’s Horticultural Society and its History Society (where a clearer head declared her human and of Indian extraction).

The Nondescript
Julia traveled on to London.  The English press trumpeted her as “a Grand and Novel Attraction”.  Somehow, she came to the attention of a ludicrously smarmy opportunist named Theodore Lent (who sometimes used the alias “Lewis B. Lent”). 

He recognized a cash cow when he saw one.  And Julia’s appearance was unsettling enough that he knew he could exhibit her with several potentially different “origin” stories: throwback, missing link, or even a human/animal hybrid.  He took over her management (whether he bought her from her previous handler or paid a contractual release fee or merely convinced Julia to let him handle her affairs is not clear).

Lent changed her billing name to “The Nondescript” (meaning “something unexplainable”).  To his credit, though, he cultivated Julia’s talents.  He taught her to dance and play music.  She apparently already possessed a wonderfully solid and pleasing singing voice. And in her London shows, she sang romantic songs (in both Spanish and English).  She also danced what were described as “fancy dances” (probably traditional Spanish figures).

The London press, just like its American counterpart, was insanely curious about her and her origins.  She granted press and personal interviews, and while the debate raged, she was positively promoted in the papers.  She was described as “very civilized and domestic”, loving travel, cooking, and sewing.  She also spoke Spanish and English as well as her native language.  The press also emphasized her relative contentment – she seemed genuinely happy with who she was and what she was doing in life. 

However, Lent tended to treat her as chattel, no better than a farm animal, and he allowed her to be examined by doctors and scientists alike in the most intimate manner as he saw fit (though papers of the day claimed she willingly and even cheerfully gave herself over to such examinations, it is unlikely this is true). 

Journalists noted her lack of concern over wealth.  Theodore Lent, though, was very concerned about wealth: money generated by Julia was what he most desired. 

Man about the House
Lent moved the show on to Berlin after London.  On tour later in Leipzig, Julia landed a lead in a play.  She acted as the love interest of a young man who could never see her face because she Julia Pastrana (print from daguerreotype, 1857)Credit: public domainalways wore a veil.  When the youth left the stage, Julia’s part called for her to raise her veil so all could see her homeliness.  This proved very amusing to the audience.  When the boy finally lifted Julia’s veil at the end of the play his infatuation was cut short indeed.   

After this success, a German magazine interviewed her.  The published article featured a life sketch drawn for the piece.  Julia talked about her American and London tours.  The subject of romance was raised, and she told the reporter she had received many marriage proposals (from more than twenty eager admirers).  These, she said, she turned down because the men “were not rich enough”. [The interviewer expressed concern later that Julia’s “rejected proposals” statement had been fed to her on purpose by Lent in the hopes of attracting a very wealthy and competition-minded suitor.]

Lent, however, changed tack.  He felt that he needed to do something further to protect his own interests rather than marry Julia off to a rich suitor (or allow her to be wooed away by another promoter).  His solution was to marry her himself in 1857. 

The marriage was strictly one-sided.  Julia, by all accounts, adored Lent while he callously ignored her and went on with his business plans for her.  In Vienna, Austria (again, against her tender sensibilities), he forced Julia to submit to more intimate physical examinations by curious doctors.  Also, to insure that people paid to see her unique visage, Lent prohibited her from leaving their apartment during daylight hours.  

From Vienna they toured Poland and then traveled on to Moscow.  Lent increasingly controlled Julia’s movements.  It was in Moscow in late 1859 that the couple discovered Julia was pregnant.  Because of her diminutive size and narrow hips doctors were concerned for her health, believing childbirth would be difficult for her.  Julia’s sole concern was that the baby not have her genetic problems, and she hoped it would take after its father.

Unfortunately, her greatest fear was met on March 20, 1860, when she gave birth to a boy covered in hair.  He only lived for 35 hours.  Julia, meanwhile, contracted a postpartum fever, a common enough problem in those days.  Lent likely did not care enough about her to insure proper medical treatment. 

Julia Pastrana malingered and then died on March 25, 1860, in Moscow five days after giving birth.  She was 26.

Afterlife Appearances
In perhaps one of the most uncaring and despicable acts recorded in history, Theodore Lent decided that his cash flow from Julia Pastrana’s must remain uninterrupted.  He sold the corpses of his wife and son to a doctor in Moscow. 

This man embalmed them with great care, exercising something closer to the mummification process to insure preservation (the process took six months, during which this doctor also dissected Julia for sJulia Pastrana & son in display cases (etching)Credit: public domaintudy).  He then commissioned special glass exhibition cases for each body (the one for the boy looked like nothing more than a bell jar while Julia’s was appropriately spacious).  These cases were placed on display at the University of Moscow’s Anatomical Museum where tickets had to be purchased to see “The Ape Woman” and her infant son. The pair was very popular.

Lent, however, could not rest on his laurels. Incensed at the profits being made by Moscow University with his dead wife and son, he agitated to have their bodies returned to him.  He started legal proceedings to get them back.  He brought proof of his marriage to the American consul; the Russian university was finally forced to return the mummies to him.  He was not allowed to exhibit them anywhere in Russia, however, because his concern was purely monetary and they were not confined to a scientific institute (as they had been).  Lent took his mummies and returned to England in 1862.  The novelty of Julia (dressed in one of her dancing costumes) and of the infant mummy (dressed in a little sailor suit) was a sensation, and Lent made a fortune as the exhibit stayed packed.  She was billed by him as the “Embalmed Nondescript”.

The novelty wore off soon enough, though, so Lent rented the pair to a traveling curiosities museum in England.  The bodies were taken to Sweden in Julia Pastrana and son (mummified)Credit: public domain1864 on tour.  It was during that same year that Theodore Lent met another woman with Julia’s particular genetic issues and physical appearance.  Assuring himself that lightning could strike in the same place twice, Lent married this woman and renamed her Zenora Pastrana.

Because this new wife looked so much like Julia, Lent used the similarity to exploit her as “Julia’s sister”, and he exhibited her as he did Julia.  He took possession of the mummies again for a brief time and the four of them (Lent, the mummies, and Zenora) toured together before Lent rented the mummies to a museum in Vienna.  Strangely, about this time, he began billing Zenora not as Julia’s sister, but claimed she was Julia.

Lent had gleaned a great deal of wealth from Julia (in life and death) and from Zenora.  Finally, he and Zenora retired to St. Petersburg in Russia in the earliest part of the 1880s.  They bought a small waxworks museum.  Soon after retiring, though, Lent had a mental breakdown.  He was committed to a Russian mental institution, and in 1884 he died there.

Julia Pastrana (2 views, embalmed remains)Credit: public domain

Shell Game
Zenora stayed in Russia for a few years, and then left for Munich in 1888.  She reclaimed the mummy of her “sister” and the baby and set up a tour with them (which also served to prove that she was not Julia Pastrana as Lent claimed just a few years before).   She gave the mummies to an anthropological exhibit in Munich in 1889, and then she retired from touring, marrying a much younger man for company.  The new German owner later showed the mummies at German fairs then sold them to the highest bidder at a Viennese circus convention in 1895. 

The mummies were sold, rented, and moved around over the next 25 years, finally coming to rest in Norway in 1921.  A man had bought them for a “chamber of horrors” exhibit he owned.  During Norway’s German occupation in 1943, the collection was ordered destroyed.  The owner convinced the Nazis, however, to spare Julia and the baby boy, telling them how much money could be made for the Nazi cause by exhibiting them.  The Germans took up this opportunity, and the mummies toured around Germany before finding their way back to the “chamber of horrors” in Norway.  In 1953, the chamber’s contents were put in storage in a warehouse near Oslo. 

Rumors circulated that a strange “Ape Woman” lurked inside the warehouse (somewhat confirmed when some teens broke in, found Julia, and were terrified by her).  To capitalize on this the previous owner’s son brought the mummies out in the mid 1950s and displayed them until the mid 1960s.  By this time, most people – because of the desiccated condition of the bodies and Julia’s strange countenance – were unsure if what they saw were real human bodies or merely effigies. 

Despite an intense interest by outsiders to buy these relics, the son kept the exhibit going, showing them throughout Sweden and Norway.  In 1971, the pair traveled to the United States, but the tour was cut short – Americans bridled at the macabre idea of showing the corpse for entertainment purposes alone. Changes in public tastes by then prevented the mummies from being shown in Norway again, and they were put back in storage in 1973. 

The storage location was broken into in August 1976, and the mummies were vandalized.  The jaw and an arm were torn off the infant, and the rest of his body had been tossed in an outside ditch; by the time the little corpse was found, most of it had been eaten away by mice, and only a few scraps were left.  In 1979, someone broke into the place and Julia’s mummy was stolen.

Police that same year answered a call concerning a human arm found in a ditch by children.  The rest of Julia’s body was found nearby after a search, though it was badly damaged.  Not realizing what they had in their possession, the police took the remains to the Oslo Institute of Forensic Medicine.  There it languished, unnoticed and unidentified.

A Norwegian journalist found Julia in the basement of the Institute in February 1990 (where police had brought her over a decade earlier).   She was positively identified as Julia Pastrana, placed in a Julia Pastrana (mummified remains)sealed coffin, and stored at Oslo University’s anatomy department.   Norway’s Senate recommended burying Julia in 1994, but the country’s Minister of Sciences vetoed the proposal, saying she should be kept on hand for research. Access to her remains, however, was restricted, and only by special permit could anyone see or handle Julia Pastrana.

In mid 2012, the National Commission for Research on Human Remains advocated for Julia’s repatriation and burial in Mexico.  Interested scientific parties insisted upon conducting final testing on her, however, before she would be released.  The mummified remains were prepared and announced as ready for burial in August 2012.  Her body was relinquished by Norway in early February 2013 and returned to Sinaloa, Mexico.

Julia Pastrana – the Ape Woman – was buried on Tuesday, February 12, 2013, in Sinaloa de Leyva, a small town very near her birthplace in the western Mexican mountains.  A Roman Catholic Mass was held for her in a local church; then her casket was transported to the town’s cemetery.  A band played traditional music as she was lowered into the ground. 

Julia Pastrana's casket (Feb 12, 2013)Credit: APOver the 159 years since she left her home land, Julia Pastrana, the little hairy girl from Mexico’s western range, traveled the world – in life and in death.  It is wonderful to think that she is finally now at rest, at home.

Julia Pastrana (illustration)Credit: public domain***

It only lasted 2 seasons on HBO . . .

. . . but, boy, was it something!

Carnivale: The Complete Seasons 1-2 (2-Pack)
Amazon Price: $59.72 $38.24 Buy Now
(price as of Sep 29, 2016)
Freak Babylon: An Illustrated History of Teratology and Freakshows
Amazon Price: $19.95 $12.02 Buy Now
(price as of Sep 29, 2016)
Trucker Man
Amazon Price: Buy Now
(price as of Sep 29, 2016)