Julia Pastrana was a 19th century indigenous Mexican woman and a gifted singer and dancer who toured Europe and the United States billed as “The Ugliest Woman in the World.” She was born with what we now call generalized hypertrichosis terminalis and severe gingival hyperplasia, conditions that covered her body in thick hair and gave her an overdeveloped jaw. Several prominent doctors of her day testified that she was part-woman, part beast (although others were well aware of the truth—she was entirely human). After her death due to complications from childbirth in 1860, Pastrana’s embalmed body and that of her infant son were exhibited off and on for over a century, appearing as late as 1972 in United States fairgrounds. They later spent decades in storage in Oslo, where they were vandalized and her son’s body destroyed.
In 2013, after nearly a decade of efforts, artist Laura Anderson Barbata succeeded in having Pastrana’s body retrieved from storage in the Schreiner Collection at the University of Oslo and repatriated to a cemetery near her birthplace in Sinaloa, Mexico. There, Pastrana was buried in a secure tomb amid a Catholic ceremony and thousands of flowers sent from all over the world.
Our new book covers Julia’s story from a variety of angles, including what we know of Julia’s life and discovery in storage (Jan Bondeson), what she has to tell us about our responsibility to the dead (Grant Hester), the ethical dilemmas stories like hers present for museums today (Nicholas Marquez-Grant), her story as viewed through the lens of feminist and disability studies (Rosemarie Garland-Thomson), how the repatriation was accomplished (Barbata), and other bodies with similar tales still stored in museums today (me).
While Pastrana’s story may seem like an isolated case, I believe it has important things to say about how far we’ve come—and how far we have to go—in terms of viewing all members of the human family as equally worthy of respect. I hope you’ll check it out.
Here are my favorite mental_floss stories from 2016, at least the ones from my watch. Producing well-researched, well-crafted stories on internet time isn’t always easy, and I’m hugely grateful to all my wonderful writers, not to mention the rest of the team over at MF. Working on stories that connect people to history and place continues to be the thing that gets me out of bed every day. (Well, that and coffee.)
The Chevalier d’Eon, a.k.a. Mademoiselle de Beaumont, was a big star in 18th century France and England who served as a diplomat, spy, pamphleteer, and fencer. D’Eon also lived the first half of life as a man, and the second half as a woman. By Stassa Edwards. (Part of our Show & Tell column highlighting interesting objects in museums and archives.)
Robert Peary has been celebrated as the first man to reach the North Pole, but it was probably Matthew Henson, his assistant, who deserves that distinction. Here’s a retrobituary, as we call them, in honor of the 150th anniversary of his birth. By Michele Debczak.
Canada’s longest-serving prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie, took advice from dead people, his dogs, and the patterns in his shaving cream. By Don Rauf, in celebration of Canada Day.
The dangerous and highly competitive world of Victorian orchid hunting included violent deaths, peeing on competitors’ specimens, and blooms growing out of human bones. By Claire Cock-Starkey.
The Delano grape strike has been heralded as one of the nation’s most important labor struggles, but the Filipinos who started the strike, especially leader Larry Itliong, have long been overlooked. By Kyla Cathey.
On a kayak swamp tour near NOLA in June, I heard the legend of a voodoo priestess whose wrath supposedly destroyed a whole town. I dug into her tale (with the help of mental_floss researcher Jocelyn Sears) to find out the real story, which was just as dark as I imagined—although a little less supernatural.
100 years after Rasputin died, the story of how—and why—he died is still more myth than reality. At this point, I doubt we’ll ever know the whole truth. By Andrew Lenoir.
Le Karnice was the Victorian “safety coffin” designed by Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki to save lives at a time when fear of premature burial was at an all-time high. By Claire Voon.
This ancient 20-sided die looks like it could have been used for Egyptian D&D, but its possible function as an alphabet oracle might be even more interesting. By Erin Blakemore.
Olive Oatman was a mid-19th-century Mormon teenager who lived with the Mohave tribe for several years before being “freed” by the federal government. She spent the rest of her life a marked woman. By Meg van Huygen.
The ravens at the Tower of London get a lullaby every night. That’s one of the 13 behind-the-scenes “secrets” Christine Colby gathered from the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London.
Les Waas, writer of the Mister Softee jingle, was a perennial prankster. He died in 2016, but I’ll always remember the ice cream truck song as his longest-lasting joke. By Michele Debczak.
In June 1945, a group of kids playing on a Liverpool street discovered a skeleton inside a metal cylinder. Some think the body belonged to a disgraced paint manufacturer, but the case has never been solved. By Luke Bather.
In the 1960s, Yetta Bronstein was an imaginary Jewish housewife who ran for president. One of her slogans: “Vote for Yetta and things will get Betta.” By Meg van Huygen.
This heart-breaking 18th-century rebus token was left for a child abandoned at London’s Foundling Hospital. By Erin Blakemore.
In 1863, a legless man washed up on a beach in Nova Scotia, unable to speak. The town adopted him, but no one ever figured out who he was. Meg van Huygen wrote about “Jerome” and other mysterious people without a past.
A few months after we published that story, a former nuclear physicist and forensic genealogist solved the case of identity thief Lori Erica Ruff, who was actually Kimberly McLean, a Pennsylvania woman who left her family at age 18. By Jake Rossen.
I’m sure there’s a bunch of other fantastic stories I’m forgetting, too. Certain of it.
It’s been a difficult week. Late Tuesday afternoon, I posted on social media about how I would soon be able to say I had voted for the nation’s first Black and then first female president. I noted that what I found even more moving than casting my vote was the diversity at my polling place in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where a whole crew of people once excluded from the voting process (people of color, immigrants, women) were working, helping one another, and helping me, do our civic duty. For a moment, it felt like as messy and fucked-up as this country can be, maybe it would all be ok.
Fast forward a few days, and we have a hollow buffoon with misogynist, racist, looney tune tendencies as the president and there’s a swastika at the park in the town where I grew up. I’ve been having so many conversation with friends who are shocked, alarmed, and angry—as we should be. To be clear, these are not sour grapes because “our side” lost. Outrage is a valid response when a leader who threatens basic human rights—the right to safety and dignity regardless of ethnicity or country of origin, the right to a free press, the right to worship as we please, love as we please, to have control over our own bodies—is elected. I heard one person say, “I refuse to be angry, because anger is what got us into this mess.” That’s like getting food poisoning and then saying “I’m not going to eat ever again, hunger is what got me into this mess.” Vomiting is sometimes the body’s response to a toxin; anger can work similarly. And righteous anger can be transformative.
I could go on for days, but I can’t say it any better than the words of the ACLU’s executive director, Anthony D. Romero. He wrote:
“President-elect Trump, as you assume the nation’s highest office, we urge you to reconsider and change course on certain campaign promises you have made. These include your plan to amass a deportation force to remove 11 million undocumented immigrants; ban the entry of Muslims into our country and aggressively surveil them; punish women for accessing abortion; reauthorize waterboarding and other forms of torture; and change our nation’s libel laws and restrict freedom of expression.
These proposals are not simply un-American and wrong-headed, they are unlawful and unconstitutional. They violate the First, Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, and 14th Amendments.”
In my discussions with friends, many people are looking for ways to act and are unsure what to do next. Giving Trump a chance to lead is not what to do next—he has said enough for us to know what he is capable of. For right now, here are some basic things you can do:
Is an important birthday, anniversary, or other special occasion coming up? Why not make a donation in honor of someone instead of buying a gift? I just did this for some family birthdays—people old enough to buy their own presents, who don’t really need another tchotchke from me. I’ve also set up recurring monthly donations, because guaranteed amounts help organizatios plan.
I know this might sound extreme, but what if we cancelled Thanksgiving and spent the money we were going to spend on an elaborate meal as a donation instead? My family’s across the country, and so I was considering a fancy restaurant meal; now, I want to donate that money and find a place where I can volunteer. (I will probably still find a way to eat some pumpkin pie, though.)
If money is tight, many of those organizations have sign-up sheets for volunteering your time. Remember that you have the chance to impact people’s minds with every conversation in daily life. Be proud, be strong—you have a right to your opinion, and no one, certainly not the president, is exempt from criticism. Never let anyone tell you that criticizing elected officials is disrespectful or un-American. It’s anything but.
Protest. If you think “protesting doesn’t do anything,” consider the civil rights movement. Perhaps you might google Gandhi? He was kind of a big deal.
The Million Woman March on DC in inauguration day one protest to consider. All genders are welcome, vaginas not necessary.
If you witness harassment or discrimination, stand up for the vulnerable. Here’s a great comic that demonstrates one technique for how to do so, and applies regardless of the type of harassment being enacted. I used this technique on a train a few years ago, and the harassing man was so flummoxed it worked like a charm.
Exercise your critical thinking skills at all times. When you see a news article, check the source and date right away. If you’re unfamiliar with the source, try to see how long it’s been around. Brand-new? Could be a red flag. Look for an “about us” section. There are a few other good tips at the bottom of this NYT piece.
Be skeptical about attempts to commodify your dissent. The wearing of a safety pin might make you feel good, and that’s not nothing this week. But the symbol may not register to those you’re trying to protect, and if you’re spending more than a second and a few cents on it, your effort is probably better spent elsewhere. Please do not buy the $300 14k gold safety pin necklace as a gesture of solidarity.
On a related note, while self-care is critical for self-preservation, please don’t treat your pedicure like a political act. I mean, just don’t.
At the same time, I’m drawing courage from my freedom-fighting family members, like my ancestor Owen Lovejoy, who worked hard to end slavery in D.C. and lost his brother to the cause when his abolitionist printing press was torched. I take comfort in knowing that even Abraham Lincoln thought Owen Lovejoy was “too incendiary.” But I bet Owen knew which side of history he was on.
And yet, not everything is dark. In the Union Square subway station, the street artist Matthew Chavez has set up a wall of compassion (that’s what I’m calling it), featuring one of my favorite inventions, the Post-It note. I took a brief video of it:
In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the Union Sq subway station in NYC, covered in messages of love for the vulnerable and against Trump. pic.twitter.com/MsfxkC0yuU
2014 was tumultuous but productive, marked by the the kind of brush fires that are essential for clearing out the old and propagating the new. And while it hasn’t always been an easy year, one of the things I most enjoyed was getting to write slightly longer pieces that combine my curious cross-section of interests: history, place, memory, mourning, and the failed ideas of science and medicine. I love discovering overlooked people and places that have something to say about the folly of the human condition, our attempts to cure and fix and master ourselves. People like Grandison Harris, the African-American man enslaved by the Georgia College of Medicine to steal bodies for the medical students, or Julia Pastrana, the 19th century Mexican bearded woman who became a sensation on stage even as doctors debated whether she was fully human. Places like Hart Island, New York City’s potters’ field, which feels like something out of Soviet Russia but is just a boat ride away from Manhattan, or like London’s Cross Bones graveyard, which a modern shaman has helped rescue from obscurity, revealing layers upon layers of that city’s darkest social and sexual histories.
Stygian as these stories may seem, there is usually some light along the way: reversals of fortune, friends who appear just when they’re needed most, criminals put behind bars, forgotten graves finally marked, promising lawsuits. Here are my favorite stories from 2014; I hope I’m lucky enough to find and produce more like them in 2015.
Of course, none of these articles would appear without the community of writers and editors who inspire me, edit me, and publish my stuff. If places like the Smithsonian Magazine’s website, Atlas Obscura, and Lapham’s Quarterly didn’t exist, I’d probably still just be a disgruntled teenager scribbling in her notebook. At least now I can write on a laptop!
Mitford’s book wasn’t what I expected. I was anticipating a cultural analysis of America’s relationship with death, but the book is actually an economic exposé. The “American Way” isn’t a reference to thoughts and feelings so much as habit and techniques of buying and selling. Mitford was a strong critic of capitalism, and I have a feeling that her political motivations for writing the book have become somewhat, ahem, buried for readers of my generation.
Mitford never expected for her reputation to become so linked to funerals, and in fact, after reading many of her letters, I came to the conclusion that she didn’t care about the book as much as later, more overtly political work. But she certainly did love the mortuary magazines she used in her research (selections apparently papered her downstairs bathroom). I wanted to see what kind of material she was looking at, so I took a trip to the New York Public Library a few weeks ago and snapped pictures of a few choice ads from old copies of Mortuary Management. This one seemed especially ill-advised:
I have a feeling Mitford would have appreciated that ad, and perhaps the slightly disturbing Christmas card from the same issue:
It’s been an exciting few months. Just to prove that I have actually left the house, here are some photos from recent travels:
At the end of April, I spoke at several Rest in Pieces-related events in New York. The first was at Observatory in Brooklyn, co-presented by the wonderful women of Morbid Anatomy and Phantasmaphile. I took advantage of the Morbid Anatomy space to snap a few pictures with some very early–or very late?–guests. Thanks to all who showed up!
I was lucky enough to speak at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery the following night. Yes, that Sleepy Hollow, the one with the headless horseman. (He was sadly absent.) Keys to the Sleepy Hollow mausoleums:
Burial registers at the cemetery–you can bet I was itching to pour through these:
Afterward, Jim of Sleepy Hollow invited us to join one of their “Murder and Mayhem” tours through the cemetery, which I highly recommend. Wandering through a cemetery with lanterns at dusk was one of the lovelier experiences of my recent memory. Unfortunately, it was hard to take good pictures with my iPhone, although this captures some of the experience (the grave is of a famous abortionist):
My favorite stop was the Bronze Lady, a sculpture who supposedly figures in some complicated local high school graduation rituals:
The last event in NYC was a reading at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. The place was just gorgeous, with fruit trees all in bloom around the graves. Driving up to the chapel in full sun was a sight to remember. Of course, the only good photos I got were inside. Here’s me with Carrie Schaff, a friend and editor type from Feral House/Process Media:
Here’s the one good photo from outside Green-Wood. Do I look bored? I definitely was not bored. That’s just my face.
A few weeks later I flew to San Francisco, where I was delighted to appear with the singer/songwriter Jill Tracy at an event for Obscura Society SF. (I also did a fun interview with Atlas Obscura to promote the event here). It was such a pleasure to meet Jill, Annetta from Atlas Obscura, and many others. Jill played a few songs that she composed while spending the night at the Mütter Museum, which I can’t even imagine doing. Here she is performing with the museum projected over her:
Judging from the audience response, the highlight of my talk was the part about Rasputin’s penis. I won’t post that picture, but here’s one of Rasputin’s daughter on a Wheaties box. (This is stolen from an eBay listing that has since sold.)
Another highlight of the San Francisco trip was exploring the giant necropolis of Colma with Colin Dickey and his wife Nicole Antebi. (I’m not sure why I look like I’m running away here.)
Hours before our visit, I discovered that I have a relative buried in Colma, a sea captain named Simeon Bartlett Kinney. Here he is:
I’m thinking his beard would be an inspiration to the young men of Brooklyn.
Simeon B was buried in San Francisco’s Masonic cemetery, which was dug up at some point and the graves moved to Colma. (All of San Francisco’s graves were dug up and moved to Colma when the city ran out of room for graves in the early 20th century.) My father had researched Kinney and discovered that his grave had been moved to Woodlawn Memorial Park in Colma, conveniently enough the first cemetery we came across in the city. I braved the records office, where three helpful young ladies in black suits informed me that all the bodies from the Masonic cemetery had been buried in a mass grave at the back of the cemetery. They were relieved at how calmly I received the news, and I wanted to say “Hey, some of the most famous people in history ended up in mass graves!” Nevertheless, I may have shouted “mass grave!” with a little too much glee when I left the office to share the news with Colin.
Two strange big cats were flanking the monument, so of course I made friends. These guys didn’t look like normal cemetery art to me. Perhaps they’re rejects from a Disneyland ride?
Thanks to all who came out, let me crash at their house, showed me around, and cared about my odd little book! Let’s do it again soon, huh?