The body of Julia Pastrana, who had a rare disease that left her body covered in hair, had been languishing in a storage room at the University of Oslo until a New York-based artist launched a campaign to return her body to Sinaloa de Leyva nearly 10 years ago. The campaign has finally succeeded and Pastrana will be buried in the town on Tuesday – almost 153 years since her death following childbirth. Before and after she died, she was exhibited throughout Europe, the U.S. and Canada, where critics called her ‘revolting in the extreme’.
A woman branded the ‘ugliest woman in the world’ after a rare disease left her body covered in hair has finally returned to her birthplace in Mexico for a proper burial – 153 years after her death.
Julia Pastrana was exploited as part of a traveling exhibition through Europe until she died from complications of childbirth in 1860. Even after her death, her body was exhibited across the world.
It eventually ended up in a storage room at an Oslo research institute, and after learning of the body’s whereabouts, visual artist Laura Anderson Barbata campaigned to have it returned to Mexico.
‘I felt she deserved the right to regain her dignity and her place in history, and in the world’s memory,’ Barbata, who learned Pastrana’s story while working on a play about her life, told the New York Times.
‘I hoped to help change her position as a victim to one where she can be seen in her entirety and complexity.’
Barbata, who lives in New York but hails from Mexico City, eventually won her decade-long battle and on Tuesday, Pastrana’s body will finally be buried in Sinaloa de Leyva.
Pastrana was born in Mexico in 1834 and suffered from congenital terminal hypertrichosis, which left her face and body covered in thick hair.
She also suffered from gingival hyperplasia, which made her lips and gums thick. She was not diagnosed with either condition in her lifetime.
In 1854, she was bought by a Mexican customs administrator and he began exhibiting her through the U.S. and Canada. While in New York, she married Theodore Lent, who became her manager.
Historians believe that while she was in love with Lent, he only married her to control her earnings, the New York Times reported.
Lent toured his wife, whom he called a ‘bear woman’, through Europe. Critics called her ‘revolting in the extreme’ and doctors said she was the result a human mating with an ‘Orang Outang’.
But she is also documented in 19th century history books as having an affinity for singing, music, dancing and languages, as well as great generosity to local charities.
In 1859, she fell pregnant and her son inherited her hypertrichosis and died 35 hours after his birth. Pastrana died from complications of the birth five days later – aged just 26.
But the death did not stop Lent, and he began exhibiting his wife and son’s embalmed bodies propped up a in glass cabinet.
Exploited: Pastrana, who was born with a rare disease that left her body covered with hair, was advertised as a ‘bear woman’ as she toured Europe with her husband and manager Theodore Lent
Julia Pastrana suffered from congenital terminal hypertrichosis, which left her face and body covered in an abnormal amount of thick hair. This form of extreme hair growth is most responsible for the term ‘werewolf syndrome’.
There is no cure for any congenital forms of hypertrichosis, and an affected female has a 50 per cent change of passing it to her offspring – as Julia did to her son.
This type of hypertrichosis is usually accompanied by gingival hyperplasia, which makes the person’s lips and gums thicker due to an overgrowth of gum tissue. Julia also suffered from this.
She was not diagnosed with either condition in her lifetime.
He later married a bearded woman in Mexico and billed her as Pastrana’s sister ‘Zenora Pastrana’.
After his death in a Russian mental institution in 1884, the bodies continued to be featured at exhibitions until thieves broke into a warehouse owned by a fairground in Norway in 1976 and stole them.
The remains were later found by police in a trash bin; Pastrana’s arm had been dismembered and her son’s body could not be salvaged.
In 1996, her body was taken to the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Oslo, where she was placed in storage.
‘By ending up as part of a collection in a basement, she lost any trace of dignity,’ Barbata said. ‘My ultimate dream goal was that she should go back to Mexico and be buried.’
Barbata learned of Padtrana’s sad resting place while designing costumes for a play her sister, Kathleen Anderson Culebro, produced in Texas: The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World.
In 2005, she began petitioning the University of Oslo to return the body to Mexico, and in 2008, she made her case to Norway’s National Committee for the Evaluation of Research on Human Remains.
On show: Even after her death from childbirth, Pastrana was embalmed and exhibited next to her dead son
In June last year, they agreed ‘it seems quite unlikely that Julia Pastrana would have wanted her body to remain a specimen in an anatomical collection’.
The current governor of Sinaloa, Mario López Valdez, then joined the cause last year, and the Mexican ambassador to Norway, Martha Bárcena Coqui, offered to work with the university.
The institute agreed to start the process transferring the body to Mexican custody last August, and last week, Barbata confirmed Pastrana’s identity before her coffin was sealed.
During the check, she saw that bolts remained in Pastrana’s feet, and they were removed.
Pastrana will be buried on Tuesday in a cemetery in Sinaloa de Leyva, near to her birthplace.
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