I had originally planned to do this post in May, but a recent development has pushed it to the front of the queue.
Julia Pastrana (1834-1860) was a Native American woman from the mountains of Mexico, born with a rare confluence of conditions: only four and a half feet tall, she was covered in coarse black hair, with a jutting jaw and brow ridge, swollen lip and gums, and unusually large nose and ears.
It was perhaps inevitable in that day and age that she would be discovered and wind up in American museums and sideshows. Starting in 1854, one begins to find her advertised by various promoters, invariably promoted as a “missing link”, with claims that she was half gorilla, orangutan, or even bear! Her showmanship value was enhanced by the fact that she spoke Spanish and English in addition to her native tongue, and could sing and dance. Her career was to be shortlived, however, for tragic reasons.
Circa 1856 she fell into the hands of one Theodore Lent, who was apparently a cruel taskmaster who eventually married her just so he could retain his control over her. In 1860 while on tour in Moscow, Julia gave birth to a baby who suffered her same condition. Both she and the baby died within days. Lent continued to exhibit their mummified remains for a time, then sold them. The mummies of Pastrana and her baby changed hands many times over the years and eventually wound up in a Norwegian horror museum.
In recent years the remains were rediscovered and an effort was made to have them properly buried in Pastrana’s native country. This week, the burial took place, with all appropriate honors, to headlines around the world. See links here:
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.