She was called “bear woman,” “the bearded and hairy lady” and once described as the hybrid of a human and an orangutan. Throughout her life, her husband exhibited her as a freak of nature on a worldwide tour.
She passed away in 1860 but was never given a proper burial — instead, she was mummified so she could continue being displayed as a circus object. But on Tuesday, more than 150 years after her death, she was finally buried. Now she rests with the dignity that life had rarely afforded her.
This is the story of Julia Pastrana, known as the world’s ugliest woman. Born in Mexico in 1834, Pastrana suffered from two rare diseases that were undiagnosed in her time: generalized hypertrichosis lanuginose, which gave her copious facial hair and gingival hyperplasia, which thickened her jaw, Reuters reported.
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In the mid-1850s, she was sold to Theodore Lent, a U.S. impresario who later married her to keep control of her and the money she was bringing in, according to the New York Times. She reportedly fell madly in love with Lent, who taught her to sing and dance in order to parade her in freak shows across the United States and Europe.
Pastrana died in 1860 after giving birth to Lent’s son, who inherited his mother’s condition. The boy died five days later, but Lent was relentless in his pursuit of circus fame. He mummified the bodies of both mother and son, and the show carried on.
In the ensuing decades, the bodies changed many hands. The son’s remains were damaged beyond repair, but the mother’s body ended up in a storage room at the University of Oslo in Norway, according to the New York Times.
Today, more than 150 years after her death, her remains were finally brought back to her hometown after the New York-based visual artist Laura Anderson Barbata spent almost a decade lobbying for her return. The New York Times reported that Mario Lopez, the current governor of Sinaloa state, the birthplace of Pastrana, later joiner her cause and made a crucial contribution to Pastrana’s repatriation.
After a Roman Catholic mass at a local church, Pastrana was buried in the town cemetery in a white coffin garlanded with white rose while traditional music played. “Imagine the aggression and cruelty of humankind she had to face, and how she overcame it,” Lopez told Reuters. “It’s a very dignified story.”