Julia Pastrana: The Tragic Story of the Victorian Ape Woman by Christopher Hals Gylseth & Lars O Toverud

Roll up, roll up... Matthew Sweet falls for the charms of a Victorian sensation

Sunday 21 December 2003 01:00

Of all the eminent Victorians I'd like to have round for dinner, Julia Pastrana the Baboon Lady tops the list. I'd sit her between Mary Seacole, Florence Nightingale's Caribbean rival, and Ah Sing, the Shadwell opium master. But I'd let her dominate the conversation, in any of her three languages. She'd tell the company about the moment that she realised that her magnificent hairiness set her apart from the other residents of the Mexican orphanage in which she grew up. She'd describe her privileged childhood as the ward of the Governor of Sinaloa, her trip to New York to begin her life on the stage, her opinions of the crowds who turned up to hear her sing operatic arias and dance the Highland Fling. She'd stroke her luxuriant beard, and reveal whether her marriage to her manager, Theodore Lent, was a love-match, or whether it was as murky and twisted as the relationship between Michael and Cheryl Barrymore.

There's one question, above all, that I would like to put to her. Would she have taken up with Theodore Lent if she had known that, after her death in childbirth in 1860, he would have her body and that of their infant son preserved, and toured around the world as twin miracles of the embalmer's art?

Julia Pastrana's new biographers, Christopher Hals Gylseth and Lars O Toverud, occasionally give the impression that they have enjoyed the privilege of a soup-to-nuts evening in her company. They pronounce upon motives about which they can only speculate. They offer conjecture as fact. How do they know, I wonder, that pregnancy "brought great happiness" to Pastrana, when they concede that her husband's feelings "can only be guessed at"? How do they know that when Pastrana declared that she wanted to return to her family in Mexico, her patrons "knew that this was wishful thinking" and that "Inwardly, Julia knew it too"? How do they know that the piano of the New York Gothic Hall musical theatre was out of tune when Pastrana appeared there in December 1854? If they have sources that justify these assertions, they don't mention them in the footnotes.

Julia Pastrana's career as a novelty song-and-dance act was brief: six years separate her Manhattan debut from her death on an operating table in Moscow. All the biographical information that exists on her has already been published - the final chapter of Jan Bondeson's book, A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities, offers the most eloquent summary of the known facts in her case. Gylseth and Toverud add nothing to this part of her story but fanciful detail and hindsighted moralising.

However, when they come to consider her posthumous career as a desiccated exhibit, their account suddenly begins to breathe. Much of Pastrana's afterlife was conducted in Norway, where she was a fixture of the carnival circuit until 1976, when her damaged remains were confiscated by the police and deposited in a refrigerated coffin in the basement of the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Oslo.

From a variety of published and unpublished sources, the authors have foraged some irresistible details about the lives of sideshow people in 20th-century Scandinavia. They provide an introduction to the "talking head", which "sat on a large round tub daubed with flecks of blood, and in the weak paraffin lamps, was very unsettling when it opened its eyes, moving its lips, and told in short, breathy sentences about love, jealousy, drama, and death". They describe the night that an electrical current was accidentally discharged into a travelling pool of crocodiles, and the showman's valiant effort to prevent its occupants from being boiled alive. They tell the story of the alcoholic medical student who was hospitalised when he drank the spirits from a jar containing the corpses of a pair of conjoined twins. Most instructively, the authors detail a battle that sounds like the premise of a horror picture from the country of their subject's birth: Julia Pastrana's corpse versus the Nazis.

In 1921, the mummified remains of Pastrana and her son were acquired by a showman named Haakon Lund. Lund was the proprietor of a vast travelling show that incorporated musical entertainments, waxworks, a pig raffle and a "Hygienic and Anatomical Museum" in which white-coated employees lectured in front of tanks full of amputated syphilitic penises. The exhibition was still touring during the years of German occupation - until 1943, when Georg Wilhelm Müller was installed as Goebbels' representative in Oslo, and ordered that the Pastrana family be seized, the collection of preserved body parts confiscated, and the population of the wax museum melted down to furnish material for candles.

Gylseth and Toverud relate this part of their story in peculiarly demotic language: "He had invested large sums in his exhibitions. Melt them down? Bollocks!" But their description of the showman's solution to his predicament offers a bizarre parody of better-known flights from Nazi territory: Julia Pastrana, her baby, the collection of pickled genitals and the all-star personnel of Lund's waxworks - Dante, Napoleon, Dreyfus, Torquemada - were transported over the border into neutral Sweden, where they remained during the war.

For Gylseth and Toverud, Pastrana's story is a tragedy. Whether she would have seen it that way, I'm not sure. From the evidence of contemporaries, she must have guessed that death would be no obstacle to her continued career in show business. Was her fate any worse, I wonder, than the crowds of volunteers who, in recent years, have signed up to be "plastinated" by Gunther von Hagen? I'm not going to presume to judge. But I'm quite certain of one thing: if you buy this biography of Julia Pastrana, illustrated with photographs of her body and that of her baby, naked on the embalmer's slab, you do not occupy a higher moral ground than the 19th-century punters who coughed up their cash to watch her dance the Highland Fling. And at least they had the decency to applaud.

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