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‘The Bear Woman’: The brief, sad life of Julia Pastrana

On Nov. 9, 1855, the Baltimore Sun ran this ad about Julia Pastrana.

For much of her brief, sad life, Julia Pastrana was denigrated, dehumanized and put on display for the amusement  and profit  of others, including her own husband.

Pastrana, who was born in Mexico in 1834, had two rare diseases: generalized hypertrichosis lanuginosa, which caused her face and body to be covered in hair, and gingival hyperplasia, which caused her lips and gums to grow thick.

She was called “the ape woman,” “the bear woman,” “the ugliest woman in the world,” and the “link between mankind and the ourang-outang.”

The horrifying history of comparing people of color to animals resurfaced last week courtesy of Roseanne Barr. ABC canceled her TV show after Barr posted a vitriolic tweet about former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, comparing her to the “planet of the apes.”

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Pastrana’s life was defined by the virulent racism of the 19th century.

In 1857, Pastrana was put on display at the Queen’s Hall in London, where the Liverpool Mercury newspaper called her “one of the most extraordinary beings ever presented to the public,” promising townspeople that a visit to the exhibition “must afford ample scope for philosophical speculation and reflection.”

Pastrana, who stood 4-foot-6 and weighed 112 pounds, was only 23 years old at the time. She had been paraded throughout the United States and Europe, viewed by curious onlookers with a cruel mix of racism and fascination.

Newspapers advertised the exhibitions using the most racist and appalling descriptions. The Liverpool Mercury wrote in 1857:

She has thick black hair all over her person, except her bosom hands, and feet. Her mouth is elongated, her lips very thick. She has double gums in front, both in the upper and lower jaw, with only one row of front teeth, and those teeth in the back gum of the lower jaw. She is good natured, sociable, and accommodating — can speak the English and Spanish languages, dance, sing, sew, cook, wash and iron — these latter accomplishments being acquired, of course, since her introduction to civilized life, having been recovered from a state of nature when she was very young.”

Pastrana was subjected to the same treatment as other people of color, who were  displayed and exhibited in cages and on stages for entertainment and scientific study.

According to the book Simianization: Apes, Gender, Class, and Race,” a collection of essays edited by Wulf D. Hund, Charles W. Mills and Silvia Sebastiani, “The ape stereotype represents elements of a canon of dehumanization which are part of larger verbal and visual metaphoric systems linking the Other to objects or animals, dirt or germs, things that require managing, cleansing, or elimination.”

The stereotype has persisted for centuries. “One hundred years ago, it was even supported by the legitimization of scientific displays,” according to the book. “The reminiscences of W. E. B. Du Bois noted that, ‘I remember once in a museum, coming face to face with a demonstration a series of skeletons arranged from a little monkey to a tall well-developed white man, with a Negro barely outranking a chimpanzee.’ ”

Pastrana’s short life illustrated the racist idea of human degradation.

According to the 1857 account in the Liverpool Mercury newspaper, Pastrana was found as a baby living in a cave in the mountains of Mexico with a woman who had been lost in a wilderness for nearly six years.

One day, “a ranchero who was hunting for his cattle in the mountains heard a voice in a cave, which he took to be that of a Mexican woman,” the newspaper reported. “He went down to the Copala and got a company of men, who went up and surrounded the cave, and by great stratagem succeed in recovering the lost woman.”

The woman told the ranchero that she had wandered to the top of the mountain after she became lost and had been confined in the cave by a rival tribe called the “Digger Indians.” But the woman, the report said, was found hundreds of miles from any settlement.

“She was at the time suckling this child, then about two years old. The woman professed to love this child dearly, though she disclaimed being its parent. The child was christened Julia Pastrana.”

Julia grew up in and worked as a domestic servant the household of Pedro Sanchez, who was governor of the state of Sinaloa.

In 1854, Pastrana was taken to the United States, where she was placed on exhibition. The Baltimore Sun ran an ad about Pastrana on Nov. 9, 1855, describing her as “half human and half bear.” It would cost 25 cents for adults to see her at Carroll Hall; 15 cents for children.

Around that same time, she married Theodore Lent, the manager who continued to exploit her. When Pastrana became pregnant with their child, Lent sold tickets to the public to watch her giving birth.

In 1857, according to the Standard London newspaper, Lent invited members of the press “to an elegant lunch for the purpose of seeing Miss Julia Pastrana in a less restrained sphere of friendly intercourse than the public levees afford.”

“We give Mr. Lent credit for introducing this wonderful being to the world in a perfectly legitimate way,” the Standard wrote. “Seriously, the young woman is a remarkable curiosity — not so horridly repulsive as the imaginative artists of the posting-bill school have made her — but yet sufficiently abnormal to create a feeling of sorrow and sadness, which would be more intense but that the young woman herself seems perfectly happy. She is said to be a Mexican by birth, but has unmistakable traces of having negro blood in her veins.”

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The reporters were amazed that she was indeed human.

“At first sight her appearance is rather startling, but on a close acquaintance any preconceived idea of something horrible or monstrous becomes to a great extent dispelled,” the Liverpool Mercury wrote in 1857. “She exhibits a considerable amount of intelligence, and answers questions put to her with readiness, occasionally displaying an aptitude for wit and appreciation of humour. Miss Julia sings songs in Spanish and English, and converses in both languages with tolerable fluency. As proof of her vocal powers, she sang, ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ in a very pleasing style. She also dances with grace and elegance not to be surpassed by many of the most celebrated professors of art.”

Pastrana died three years later in Moscow, in 1860, during complications from childbirth. Her husband continued to tour with the embalmed bodies of Pastrana and their son for years. After he died, her remains were stored in the University of Oslo.

In 1998, her life was made into a stage play entitled, “The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World,” by Shaun Prendergast.

In 2013, Pastrana finally was given some dignity. At the request of the Mexican government and after a relentless campaign led by artist Laura Anderson Barbata, who wrote the book “The Eye of the Beholder: Julia Pastrana’s Long Journey Home,” Pastrana’s body was returned to Mexican state of Sinaloa, where she was buried after a Roman Catholic Mass in a local church.

“Julia Pastrana has come home,” Saul Rubio Ayala, the mayor of her home town of Sinaloa de Leyva told reporters, according to a report by the Associated Press. “Julia has been reborn among us. Let us never see another woman be turned into an object of commerce.”

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