Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Bearded Lady Then and Now: Madame Clofullia, Julia Pastrana, and Their Legacy

Madame Clofullia, born Josephine Boisdechene in Switzerland in 1827 was America's first famous bearded woman. By the age of 8, she had reportedly grown a beard 2" thick, likely caused by a condition called hypertrichosis, the same condition responsible for so called "werewolf syndrome" in extreme cases. Her performing career began at 14 when she started touring Europe with her father to assist her family financially. Josephine later married Fortune Clofullia, a French painter and gave birth to two children, a daughter who died in infancy, and a son, Albert who himself would go on to be exhibited as "the infant Esau" due to his own hirsute appearance at a young age.

In 1853, Clofullia brought her family to America, joining P.T. Barnum's American Museum. Much to Barnum's chagrin, Clofullia proved so genial, proper, and ladylike that she failed to generate the amount of controversy and more important the attendance that either of them expected. In an effort to help recoup his investment, Barnum hired William Charr to sue Clofullia, disputing her gender. Testimony from both her father and husband and examination by three doctors later and Clofullia's gender was definitively proven. While attendance did rise in the days following the suit, Clofullia never received the uproar Barnum expected.

A year after Clofullia's American debut, Julia Pastrana, a bearded woman born in Mexico who also suffered from a then undiagnosed genetic anomaly called gingival hyperplasia which caused thickening of her lips and gums made her own debut. Purchased by a customs official in Mexico (a practice that was not unusual for the time when it came to human oddities) she first performed in 1854 at the Gothic Hall in New York, billed as a hybrid of man and beast. Pastrana was, in fact, an accomplished performer, able to dance, speak three languages fluently, and graced with a beautiful singing voice. Of course her performance had little to do with why the audience was there. Her billings are reflective of some of the worst stereotypes and racism of the day, referring to her as "the baboon lady" and "the bear woman" among other unfortunate sobriquets.

In 1854 she married her new manager, Theodor Lent and in 1859 the two discovered that Julia was pregnant. Neither mother nor child would survive the birth, however, dying mere days from one another. Lent, in an effort to continue cashing in on his wife's fame had both her and the infant preserved via a combination of taxidermy and mummification. While exhibiting their remains, Lent also came upon a German woman, Marie Bartel who suffered from the same conditions as Pastrana and whom, like Pastrana, he wed and exhibited alongside the remains of his first wife and son, billing her as Julia's sister, "Zonora Pastrana." Lent eventually went insane and was committed by Zonora in 1884, dying in an asylum in St. Petersberg,

Zenora sold off the bodies of Julia and her child which made their way from side show to museum to medical exhibit before being rediscovered in Oslo's Institute of Forensic Medicine in 1990. Thanks to the efforts of visual artist Laura Anderson Barbata, Julia's body was repatriated in 2013 after nearly 10 years of presenting her case for giving Pastrana a proper burial in Mexico. Unfortunately, the body of her son had been destroyed by vandals years before. Barbata's sister also produced a play written by Shaun Pendergast and performed entirely in the dark called The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrna, the Ugliest Woman in the World.

The tradition of the bearded lady, one of the icons of the circus sideshow continues today. Among the most accomplished bearded women currently performing is Jennifer Miller, founder of Circus Amok, dancer, filmmaker, writer and university professor, she also works with a variety of grass roots organizations like Milk Not Jails with whom Amok partnered for their show MOO. Through her performance, Miller takes on social, political, and gender topics, bringing the legacy of women like Madame Clofullia and Julia Pastrana into the 21st century and using it to further the cause of social awareness. Jennifer has also won a Bessie award in 1995 and an Obie in 2000 for her performances. She can be seen in the documentaries Un Cirque a New York and Juggling Politics.

So there you have it, three bearded ladies, their lives and legacies. Till next time,

Dr. Tobias H. Gentleman