Circus freak finally laid to rest

In 2013, a coffin was flown from Norway to Mexico. Several thousand people and a sea of flowers from all over the world welcomed the ‘Ape Woman’, who was finally to be laid to rest.

Julia Pastrana standing up. Black and white photo.
Julia Pastrana was put on display in a circus when she was alive and a funfair when she was dead. She ended up at the University of Oslo. Photo: Shutterstock Editorial
Cover of The Research Ethics Magazine no. 2, 2020. Man holding pipette in lab
2020-2 During its 30-year long history, The Norwegian National Research Ethics Committees have dealt with hundreds of cases. For this edition we asked past and present leaders which issues they think have been particularly interesting or important. This article describes one of them.

First published in Norwegian on 13 October 2020.

30 years in the service of research ethics

During its 30-year history, the National Research Ethics Committees in Norway have dealt with several hundred cases, published dozens of reports and anthologies, and drawn up guidelines and guides in a number of areas. 

The Research Ethics Magazine has asked former and current heads of secretariats and committees about which cases they think have been particularly interesting or important. This is one such case. 

In the coffin lay Julia Pastrana, a Mexican woman who had died more than 150 years before. 
‘This is a very unique story about a very unique life that causes us to reflect on respect and inclusion’, says Hallvard Fossheim, who at the time was head of the secretariat for the National Committee for Research Ethics on Human Remains. 
Fossheim helped ensure that the so-called ‘Ape Woman’ was given a dignified burial. 

Embalmed and put on display 

Julia Pastrana was born in Mexico in 1834, into one of the country’s indigenous populations. Due to a rare genetic condition, much of her body was covered with hair and her jaw area was unusually large. These special features would eventually lead to her touring the world as a circus act. 
The public flocked to see the ‘Ape Woman’, also known as the ‘Nondescript’ or the ‘Bear Woman’, singing and dancing. After a few years, Pastrana fell pregnant by her husband, who was the circus impresario. Complications during childbirth led to the death of her newborn son followed shortly after by Pastrana herself. 
For the Mexican woman, death was not the end. She was embalmed and continued her journey in the circus, before a Norwegian funfair purchased this unique ‘attraction’ in 1921. 

From funfair to university 

In 1995, almost 70 years later, Pastrana’s fate was to end up on the desk of Gudmund Hernes, Minister of Research. In the meantime, history had taken Pastrana on a 30-year tour of Lund’s Tivoli, then to a warehouse in the suburbs of Northeast Oslo, all the way to the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Oslo (UiO). 
The question now was whether Pastrana should at last be laid to rest. Or was future research into her rare condition more important? 
The Ministry settled on the latter: her remains should be kept available for research – but they must be stored in a dignified manner. In 1997, her remains were therefore moved to the Schreiner Collection at UiO. 
‘Her remains were stored in accordance with regulations, in a place that was inaccessible to the public. Pastrana was never exhibited here’, says Jan G. Bjaalie, who was responsible for the collection from 2009 to 2016.   

Artist with fighting spirit 

Although for a period there was silence concerning Pastrana in Norway, she was still receiving attention elsewhere. In the United States, a play about her life and fate sparked the interest of artist Laura Anderson Barbata. 
‘I felt it was my duty as an artist and a woman, particularly as a Mexican woman, to do everything I could to right the wrong that Pastrana had suffered. I also wanted to give her the dignity she had been denied throughout her life and after her death’, she writes in an email to the Research Ethics Magazine. 
Barbata fought for several years for Pastrana to be repatriated to Mexico and buried there. She had contact with a number of different parties in Norway. 
In 2012, Barbata received the endorsement of the Governor of Sinaloa in Mexico, the state where Pastrana was born. The Governor contacted UiO and asked them to consider the issue of Pastrana’s burial. UiO approached the National Committee for Research Ethics on Human Remains for advice. 

What would Pastrana have wanted? 

‘One of the things that made this case so special was that it was not about the remains of someone anonymous, but an individual with a name and a known life story. The story was also relatively recent compared to others that are perhaps a thousand years old’, explains Hallvard Fossheim. 
In its assessment, the National Committee for Research Ethics on Human Remains highlights the ethical requirement of respect for the individual. To try to meet this requirement, the committee asked itself what it was that Pastrana would likely have wanted. 
In the statement from 2012, the committee writes: ‘It seems highly unlikely that Julia Pastrana would have wanted to be part of an anatomical collection. Her life story, and the story of her remains after her death constitute, at the very least, a long story of how she was treated as an object for people to gape at, classify and study.’ 
The committee concluded that she should be laid to rest, and pointed out the importance of holding a dignified ceremony. First, however, samples could be taken from her with a view to possible future research. 
‘Taking a sample is not necessarily disrespectful to Julia Pastrana, as long as it is motivated by a desire to facilitate improvements in the health and quality of life for people with conditions similar to hers’, states the committee. 

Research no trump card 

On 7 February 2013, UiO handed over a coffin with Julia Pastrana’s remains to a representative of the Mexican Embassy, during a ceremony in the chapel of Rikshospitalet. Five days later, Pastrana was taken to her final resting place in Sinaloa, followed by thousands of people, a traditional tambora band of musicians and the international press. 
Barbata describes her own struggle for Pastrana’s repatriation as long and complicated, but emphasises that she is grateful for all the support and guidance she received along the way. Both Fossheim in the National Committee for Research Ethics on Human Remains and Bjaalie point out that remains cannot be handed over to ‘just anyone’. When the Mexican authorities got involved and were willing to accept the remains and provide a suitable ceremony and a safe burial place, however, there was no doubt. 
‘When a legitimate party comes along and wants to bury the remains of an identified person, it wouldn’t be right to bring up their potential for research as an argument for withholding them’, emphasises Bjaalie.  

Annual trip to the grave 

In recent decades, a wind of repatriation has blown through the West. A number of objects and remains have been returned to their countries of origin from museum collections. 
‘Norway was never a colonial power, and the Pastrana case is quite unique’, emphasises Fossheim. Nevertheless, he accepts that it can be seen in the light of this growing trend of repatriation, awareness and self-criticism against the backdrop of a long history of colonialism. 
Laura Anderson Barbata explains how every year on 12 February, the anniversary of Pastrana’s burial in Mexico, a memorial service is held at her grave. Barbata herself still has an artistic interest in Pastrana and the facts of the case. 
‘I feel it’s important to show that the systems that justified the oppression and exploitation of Julia Pastrana are still operating today’, she writes. 
No one has yet examined the samples taken before Pastrana’s remains were sent to Mexico.  

Translated from Norwegian by Carole Hognestad, Akasie språktjenester AS.