Friday, 7 June 2013

Furry Freakery and Missing Links - Pastrana and Arbus

Hypertrichosis (sometimes popularly called the Ambras or Werewolf syndrome) refers to local or generalised (full body) instances of excessive hair growth

The famous Julia Pastrana was first exhibited in New York at the Gothic Hall on Broadway as ‘The Marvelous Hybrid or Bear Woman’ in 1854. Promoted and sensationally advertised as a bearded and hairy lady and as a missing link or 'Nonedescript' Julia Pastrana then toured Europe in the 1850s. 

Her exploitation is undoubtedly shocking to modern sensibilities, but monstrous deformity of any kind was a means to make money in an era before state support was available.  In 1857 she came to Britain from America and was popularly known as the baboon-woman, a kind of Darwinian missing link. 

But her public displays did not end with her death; for she was to be mummified by her husband-manager. He continued to exhibit the corpse for several decades after her death.

The broader significance of the representations of Pastrana is discussed by Marlene Tromp and Karyn Valerius in the Introduction to Victorian Freaks The Social Context of Freakery in Britain:

"Where a discomfiting cultural disruption was already taking place—every novel, book of manners, and household guide was engaged in the struggle to define gender—the bearded woman seemed to underscore a radical instability of the norm. The narrator of the poem has no power against her; she is only contained by the uncertain chains. Clearly, her size and strength are metaphors for the danger—as well as the attraction—of boundary transgression. They reveal the allure and drama of the freak that
engaged the culture at large."  (The Ohio State University Press, 2008, p.11)

Arthur Munby’s poem ‘Pastrana’is published below.

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For a different modern take on hypertrichosis see Steven Shainberg’s film Fur: an Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus which features Nicole Kidman as Diane Arbus and depicts her relation to the furry werewolf –like neighbour Lionel (recalling Stephan Bibrowsky’s role as ‘Lionel the Lion-faced man.’ 

The hairy character’s role hints at uninhibited sexual drive and the Deleuzian notion of ‘becoming animal.’

Lion Faced Man - Stephan Bibrowski
More recently, Julia Pastrana’s story ‘sparked the imagination

of writer Rosie Garland, whose eventual novel 

‘The Beast in All Her Loveliness’ 

won Mslexia’s competition for undiscovered women novelists. 

She joins Jenni [BBC Woman’s Hour] to talk about the novel,

her interest in people on the margins, and about her alter-ego

Rosie Lugosi – the vampire queen cabaret act.’

BBC Recording of the interview

Arthur Munby’s poem ‘Pastrana’ was published in 1909 in Relicta, his final collection of poems.


’Twas a big black ape from over the sea,
And she sat on a branch of a walnut tree,
And grinn’d and sputter’d and gazed at me
As I stood on the grass below:
She sputter’d and grinn’d in a fearsome way,
And put out her tongue, which was long and grey,
And it hiss’d and curl’d and seem’d to say
‘Why do you stare at me so?’

Who could help staring? I, at least,
Had never set eyes on so strange a beast—
Such a monstrous birth of the teeming East,
Such an awkward ugly breed:
She had large red ears and a bright blue snout,
And her hairy limbs were firm and stout:
Yet still as I look’d I began to doubt
If she were an ape indeed.

Her ears were pointed, her snout was long;
Her yellow fangs were sharp and strong;
Her eyes—but surely I must be wrong,
For I certainly thought I saw
A singular look in those fierce brown eyes:
The look of a creature in disguise;
A look that gave me a strange surmise
And a thrill of shuddering awe.

But the ape still sat on that walnut bough;
And she swung to and fro, I scarce knew how,
First up in the tree, and then down below,
In a languid leisurely dance;
And she pluck’d the green fruit with her finger'd paws
And crush’d it whole in her savage jaws,
And look’d at me, as if for applause,
With a keen enquiring glance;

And she turn'd her head from side to side
With a satisfied air and a flutter of pride,
And gazed at herself, and fondly eyed
Her steel-bright collar and chain:
She seem’d as blithe as a bride full-drest,
While the strong cold steel, in its slight unrest,
Did jingle and gleam on her broad black breast
And under her shaggy mane.

But I must confess I was glad to see
That her chain was made fast to the walnut tree;
So she could not manage to get at me,
Were she ever so much inclined;
For I did not like, I scarce knew why,
That singular look in her bright brown eye;
It meant too much and it reach'd too high
To come of an apelike kind.

Perhaps she guess’d my thoughts and fears;
For she suddenly prick'd her large red ears,
And grinn'd with the grin of one who sneers,
And lifted her long rough arm,
And flung it about with a whirr and a wheel,
And scratch'd herself from head to heel
With a strength and vigour that made me feel
What power she had to harm.

There are very good reasons, we all know well,
Why an ape should claw its hairy fell;
But it seem’d to me I could surely tell,
By the grin on her hideous face,
That she did it to deepen my disgust,
And to make me think that she might and must
Be nothing higher nor more august
Than a brute of the simious race.

And, lest that proof should happen to fail,
She gave a blow like the blow of a flail
With the switchlike length of her muscular tail
To the branch whereon she sat:
The tail curl'd round it and gripp’d it tight:
And she flung herself off with all her might
And hung head downward, swinging as light
As a human acrobat.

So easily sway'd she, so easily swung,
You could see she was healthy and lively and young;
And she toss'd up her head, and her long grey tongue
Shot out, as it did before;
And she caught the bough with her brisk forepaws,
And loosed her tail and tighten'd her claws,
And swung herself up, with her chain in her jaws,
And sat in her place once more.

Oh then, what masterful airs she took!
She gnaw'd her chain with an elfish look,
Till the long links dripp’d and foam'd and shook,
Like the curb of a bridle-rein.
On either side of her rugged lips:
And I shudder'd and thrill'd to my finger tips,
When I saw she had bent and and flatten'd to strips
A piece of the massive chain.

Perhaps she would get at me, after all!
If the links should break, I might well feel small,
Young as I was, and strong and tall,
And blest with a human shape,
To see myself foil’d in that lonely place
By a desperate brute with a monstrous face,
And hugg’d to death in the foul embrace
Of a loathly angry ape.

For the ape was nearly as tall as a man;
So it seem'd to me the safest plan
To leave her at once, ere her wrath began
To spread from her glowing eyes
To the long sharp nails of her powerful hands;
For the Lex Talionis and its commands
Are just what the creature understands
And just what her passions prize.

But what had I done to rouse her wrath?
I had simply stepp’d from the garden path
On to the soft sweet aftermath
Of the lawnlike woodland green,
And had stood, like a rustic clown, agape
To study and stare at the fearful shape
Of the most uncouth outlandish ape
That ever mine eyes had seen.

Ah, perhaps that was the very thing!
She had never been used to communing
With man, who holds himself as king
Of the animals great and small:
She did not like my scrutiny;
And she meant to know the reason why
A human mortal such as I
Should trouble her state at all.

That was the reason I gave to myself
For the conduct strange of this angry elf.
As I put my doubts and fears on the shelf
And walk'd to my sumptuous inn,
Where I went upstairs and read and wrote.
And then came down to the table d’hôte
With a fresh white rose on my spotless coat.
And an appetite within.

Fifty people were seated there,
Taking their pleasure with solemn air;
Gentles and simples, ladies fair,
And some not fair though fine:
And all of them ate and drank with a will:
For each felt bound to take his fill.
As the long procession of dishes still
Invited them all to dine.

None of the fifty cared for me—
Nor for each other, that I could see:
Each of them felt exceeding free
To live for dinner alone;
And I too only look’d at my plate,
And thank'd my stars I was not too late
For that central portion of good white skate
Which I specially made my own.

But at last, we were weary of knives and forks,
And cloy'd with the popping of Rhinewine corks;
And the Oberkellner and all his works
Were seen with a languid eye;
We raised our heads, and look'd around
To see what guests mere Chance had found
To people our happy feeding ground
With a various company,

Ah, by the powers, a singular sight!
What is that lady opposite,
Sitting alone, with her back to the light,
Who has such wonderful hair?
She is comely and young? I do not know,
For her face shows dark in the evening glow;
But I wonder why she looks at me so,
And with such an elfish stare!

Sure, I remember those bright brown eyes?
And the self-same look that in them lies
I have seen already, with strange surprise,
This very afternoon;
Not in the face of a woman like this,
Who has human features, and lips to kiss.
But in one who can only splutter and hiss—
In the eyes of a grim baboon!

And what is that white metallic thing
That shines on her throat, like the gleam of a ring
Now sparkling out now vanishing
As her shaggy tresses move?
I have had but a pint of Heidenseck—
Yet I think of the collar and chain that deck
The broad black bosom and hairy neck
Of that monster in the grove!

Aye, and they rattle, indeed they do!
I look'd hurriedly round—it was all too true
That the folk were gone, save only two,
That silent dame, and I:
But a third appear’d—was there anything wrong?
For the Oberkellner tall and strong
On the parqueted floor came gliding along
With an air of mystery.

His face was pale, as if from fear;
And he stepp'd so softly, it seem’d quite clear
That the lady was not to see or hear
Whatever he had in charge:
Perhaps he had some sad news to say?
Perhaps her mind had given way,
And it was not safe to leave her all day
Untended and at large?

Whatever it were, with an anxious mind
He reach’d her seat, and stood behind;
While she, still gazing at me, seem'd blind
And deaf to all he did:
He raised his hands, and suddenly shed
Over her shoulders and over her head
A thick grey web, like a shroud for the dead;
And she sat there, closely hid.

She would have sprung to her feet in a trice—
She was no meek victim, bought with a price,
Ready and willing for sacrifice—
She would neither yield nor spare.
But the Oberkellner knew his part;
His grasp was firm, and he had no heart;
He pinion'd her arms, with accurate art,
To the back of her stout broad chair.

What did she do, in that shrouding sheath?
She tried to tear the web with her teeth—
I could see them snatch it from underneath—
And she strove to free her arms;
Then she raised her voice—and I must confess
It was not a voice to soothe and bless,
Nor such an one as is more or less
The best of a woman's charms.

No, ’twas a scream and a roar and a growl;
More like a cry of beasts that howl
Than the shriek of a startled human soul;
And it thrill’d me through and through;
For I thought, If she does contrive to get free,
She will fly at the Oberkellner and me;
And though I am nearly as strong as he,
She may prove a match for two!

But Fritz the waiter had heard that sound;
And he straight rush’d in with a spring and a bound,
And lifted my lady off the ground
With the aid of his artful chief;
She might roar and howl or scream and scold,
But he and the Oberkellner bold
Stuck to her chair, and kept fast hold,
To my very great relief.

As they carried her off, a cold damp sweat
Seized me all over; and yet, and yet,
I order'd my coffee and cigarette
As usual, in the hall;
And I did not even ask of Fritz
Whether the lady were subject to fits,
Or had gone quite mad and out of her wits:
I ask’d him nothing at all.

For in fact I dreaded to hear her tale;
That very word made me turn quite pale,
When I call’d to mind her long wild wail
Of anger and despair;
And my thoughts went back to the walnut tree,
And the creature who sat there and look'd at me
So fiercely, strangely, eagerly,
From under her shaggy hair.

The very next morning, I went away;
And I heard the Oberkellner say
(He had taken his tip, and wish’d me Good-day,
And he thought I could not hear)
I heard him say to that stern old Klaus,
Who keeps the keys of the garden-house,
‘Lassen Sie es nicht gehen hinaus—
Das schlechte schwarze Thier!’

Jan Bondeson devotes a chapter of his book A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities to the life story of Julia Pastrana.

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)


  1. Such an incredible book! It tells about 'weird people' and things, in a serious and human way. Do you know others like that? This is a such difficult kind of book to find, and I had the lucky to find that in a supermarket, in a basket of books on sale...people don't give value to good things.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Mimi.

    My long list of books on these topics is here:

    The best way to find them these day is in your library, or second hand via websites such as ABE