Photo: Wellcome Library (CC-BY 4.0)

Mexican herders searching for a missing cow found Julia and her mother hiding in a mountain cave. They took them to the nearest city, where Julia was placed in an orphanage. Sweet, intelligent, and almost totally covered in black hair, she became a local celebrity. After hearing of her unusual looks and charming disposition, the state governor adopted Julia to serve as a live-in amusement and maid. She stayed with the governor until she was twenty, when she decided to return to her own tribe. But she never completed the trip home: an American showman known as M. Rates met her somewhere on her journey back to the mountains, and persuaded her to take up a life onstage.

Julia would go on to become one of the most famous human curiosities of the nineteenth century, variously known as “the Ape Woman,” “the Bear Woman,” or “the Baboon Lady.” She made her debut in December 1854, at the Gothic Hall on Broadway in New York City. She wore a red dress, sang Spanish folk tunes, and danced the Highland Fling. Huge, appreciative crowds flocked to see her, although it wasn’t really the singing and dancing they were after: they came to gawk at her hairy face and body, her jaw that jutted forward, her unusually large lips, and her wide, flat nose. The advance publicity billed Julia as a “Bear Woman from the wilds of Mexico!” while others said she looked like an ape.

– When does a body become public property, and how can we honor the exploited? In The Public Domain Review, Bess Lovejoy explores the life of Julia Pastrana, a Mexican woman whose unusual appearance brought her out of exile from her tribe to fame and its racist trappings.

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