Julia Pastrana’s Tragic Journey From “Ape Woman” To Sideshow Celebrity

Published April 23, 2018
Updated December 6, 2018
Published April 23, 2018
Updated December 6, 2018

Despite being able to sing, dance, and speak multiple languages, Julia Pastrana was billed as a half-woman, half-ape hybrid.

Drawing Of Julia Pastrana

Wikimedia CommonsA drawing of Julia Pastrana.

When Julia Pastrana’s mother gave birth to a child entirely covered in a pelt of black hair, she was convinced that supernatural forces must have been at work. In 1836, after being found hiding in a cave with her now two-year-old daughter, some Mexican herders brought her and the child to a nearby city.

Despite her unusual appearance (which had caused her mother such distress), young Julia’s gentle character endeared her to the local population and the governor himself eventually took her into his home.

When she turned twenty, Pastrana decided she wanted to leave the governor’s house and return home to her tribe in the mountains of Western Mexico. However, she never made it back to the place of her birth. Somewhere along the road, she met an American showman who managed to convince her that her future lay on the stage.

The sweet woman who suffered from an unfortunate physical trait would go on to become a minor celebrity in the mid-1800s. Although she could sing, dance, and speak multiple languages, the audiences who filled the theaters came mainly to stare at the famed “Ape Woman” from Mexico. Her manager, Theodore Lent, did his best to encourage the public by saying she was half-woman, half-animal.

Poster For The Ape Woman

Wikimedia CommonsJulia Pastrana was billed as “The Ape Woman” and drew crowds all over the United States and Europe.

Some of the pseudo-scientists of the Victorian Age (whose theories often stemmed from pre-existing racist assumptions) eagerly promoted Lent’s vision with their own ideas. Several physicians produced certificates — which were displayed wherever Pastrana went on tour — stating that she was not really a woman at all, but a new species of half-human, half-ape hybrid.

Of course, there were also legitimate scientists who met with Pastrana and realized that, despite her irregular features, she was a completely normal woman. Charles Darwin described her as “a remarkably fine woman,” albeit with “a thick masculine beard and a hairy forehead.”

Pastrana became so famous that Lent realized he was in danger of losing his star act to a wealthier rival and decided to bind her to him in a more permanent way: marriage. How future events unfolded make it hard to imagine that romance had anything whatsoever to do with Lent’s proposal, but contemporary accounts report that Pastrana was “touchingly devoted” to him. Lent’s master plan took an unexpected turn when his new wife became pregnant in 1859 while the couple was traveling in Moscow.

Julia Pastrana's Corpse

Wikimedia CommonsThe embalmed body of Julia Pastrana on display

Pastrana was a tiny woman (only four foot six) and her pelvis was so narrow that doctors feared the birth would be a difficult one. Their worries proved correct: they needed to use forceps to deliver the infant, resulting in several severe lacerations. The newborn would only survive a little over a day after his birth; his mother just five. The tiny baby boy had not escaped the gene that had made his mother famous: he too was covered in a pelt of dark hair.

It seems Lent was more devastated at the loss of his star attraction (and main source of income) than of his wife and child. After their deaths, he managed to console himself by immediately selling their bodies to a professor at Moscow University, who then embalmed them using a new and extremely successful method.

When the wily Lent got wind of how well-preserved his family was, he quickly realized he could still be making a profit off of them. He managed to reclaim the bodies and put them on display in London.

Death did not free Pastrana from being gawked at by the public though. Her mummy and that of her child were exhibited all over Europe for decades after her death. The even did a brief, odd stint making money for the German government during the Second World War. The pair eventually wound up in permanent storage in Norway until well after the dawn of the new millennium.

Pastrana’s story was not forgotten, however.

In 2013, over a century after she had first left, Pastrana finally returned home, thanks to an official petition lodged by several Mexican politicians. She was laid to rest in a town near the place she had been born in Sinaloa with a Catholic ceremony, finally free from prying eyes.

Enjoy this look at Julia Pastrana? Next, read about P.T. Barnum’s 13 most famous and incredible oddities. Then learn about how “Tree Man” Syndrome turns people into living, breathing pieces of bark.

Gina Dimuro
Gina Dimuro is a New York-based writer and translator.