May van Oskan’s Rock Opera About “The Ape Woman” Has Great Beauty at the Berkshire Fringe [Berkshire on Stage]
Theater review by Gail M. Burns
Julia Pastrana (1834-1860) was born with a condition called hypertrichosis, where dark hair grows all over the face and body. Today we call it Werewolf Syndrome. She also had Gingivia hyperplasia, which gave her a second set of teeth, thick gums, and protruding lips. She stood just four and a half feet tall. Ethnically, she was a Native American from a tribe in the Sinaloa State of Mexico. Her face did not fit any conventional standards of beauty, but she had an hour-glass figure, the much admired Victorian “well-turned ankle,” was a talented dancer and singer, and spoke three languages.
But she was a woman and a “freak of nature,” and it was the 19th century. Her life was not her own and her fate lay in the hands of men. Her birth family was the first to sell her. She was liberally displayed and “examined” by professionals, one of whom declared her to be the spawn of a human and an orangutan, hence the moniker “The Ape Woman.” She eventually married her “manager” – one Theodore Lent – and died less than a week after giving birth to their son, who also had hypertrichosis and only lived a few days.
Pretty grim, huh? But that’s just the start of Julia’s story. Her husband had her body, and that of her infant, taxidermied and continued to display them in a glass case which travelled worldwide. Then he met a German woman with hypertrichosis, married her, and tried to pass her off as his first wife’s long lost sister, displaying her alongside the mummified remains. The second wife, named Marie, was much feistier than Julia and outlived her husband by many decades.