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The Victorian Freak Show: The Significance of Disability and Physical Differences in ...

Chapter :  Introduction
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The Victorian Freak Show:

Introduction

Physical Difference
and the Nineteenth Century

Displays of freakish bodies had a firm hold over the Victorian imagination, and the experiences of Victorian freak performers continue to fascinate us. Consider, for instance, the strange life and death of Julia Pastrana. A Mexican native, Pastrana was a small woman with an unusual facial structure who suffered from the genetic condition hypertrichosis terminalis, characterized by excess facial and body hair. These traits became the basis for a sensational career that would lead Pastrana across North America and Europe, albeit as a performing freak. Her appearances were arranged and marketed by a series of impresarios, and she eventually married showman Theodore Lent. Exhibited in the mid-nineteenth century under identities such as the “Ape Woman,” “Bear Woman,” and “Nondescript,” Pastrana's remarkable physical difference inspired both interest and fear. Her tour sparked a flurry of media coverage, much of which praised Pastrana's poise on stage and in interviews. Yet during a series of performances in London in 1857, the popular show was reportedly