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Julia Pastrana, Baboon Lady

Julia Pastrana's beardedness was a result of a congenital disorder.

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In his 1868 publication "The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication," Charles Darwin described Julia Pastrana, the Baboon Lady, as "a remarkably fine woman, but she had a thick masculine beard and a hairy forehead" [source: Bondeson]. Born in a Mexican orphanage around 1834, Pastrana had a rare genetic disorder called congenital generalized hypertrichosis terminalis with gingival hypertrophy, which resulted in excessive hair growth, enlarged gums and a noticeably protruding jaw [source: LiveScience]. At the time, of course, scientists and naturalists like Darwin didn't understand what caused Pastrana's apelike visage, making her not only a sideshow sensation but also a medical curiosity.

Pastrana toured around the United States, Europe and Russia, hailed as a "nondescript," or a cross between human and animal or male and female. In appearances in concert halls and exhibitions, Pastrana played up her confounding gender identity, outfitting her hirsute figure in frilly dresses, hair accessories and glittering baubles, sometimes clutching flowers to further contrast the masculine and feminine. She also entertained audiences by belting out English and Spanish arias and dancing in a variety of forms, particularly the highland fling [source: Bondeson].

Anecdotal accounts from the few who knew Pastrana well indicated that the leering attention she received was a source of loneliness rather than camaraderie. Though she was one of the best-known entertainers during her short lifetime, Pastrana was continually subject to oral and medical examinations and constant questioning about whether she was, in fact, a woman. In 1860, Pastrana died from giving birth to her showman's child; the baby boy, born with Pastrana's genetic disorder and suffering from newborn asphyxia, barely survived two days. Afterward, the mother and son's bodies were embalmed and sent out on the road for exhibition yet again [source: Sweet].

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