Why did it take more than 20 years to bury Eva Peron?

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there.

Candace Gibson: Jane, Erin O'Brian, one of our listeners, wrote to us asking for a podcast about South American history. She says we talk about American and European history, and she wants to know some juicy dictator stories.

Jane McGrath: There are a lot.

Candace Gibson: There are a lot. We kind of have some juicy stuff for you today. It's not necessarily about a dictator per se, but it is about a body - a very famous body that got shuffled around South America and parts of Europe before it was finally buried.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And I didn't know about this story until we started researching for the podcast. And it's really fascinating.

Candace Gibson: It is. Doubtlessly, you guys have heard of Eva Peron, or Evita. And if you're like me, you sat through the musical Evita starring Madonna about 50 times because it's just so great. And her real life, there weren't any loud musical numbers from The Casa Rosada that I know of. I know she addressed people from the balcony; I don't think she threw up her hands and sang. But she did take the very famous Rainbow Tour. And yes, there was couture clothing and lots of jewels and furs on it. So I'm very excited to tell you about that. But first, some background.

Jane McGrath: I didn't know much about Eva Peron before doing this, but she was a fascinating figure. She was born in rural Argentina, and she had to struggle because she was the youngest of five born out of wedlock because her father had another family and left her mother after Eva was born. She struggled, and by the time she was a teenager she had been idolizing American movie stars and wanted to enter show business. So she left for Buenos Aires and started a career in a show business, where she meant Juan Peron, who was bound for great things in Argentina.

Candace Gibson: He was. He won the presidency in 1946. And Eva was given control of the ministry of labor. And you can say what you want about Eva Peron; because I think that she is a very controversial figure. And to reference the movie one more time, when the film and crew were filming scenes for Evita in Argentina, they met a lot of opposition from local people who were worried that their idea and the image of Evita would be desecrated, that she would be portrayed in a very negative light. And I think that there are ways to honor the good things she did and still juxtapose those with the seedy things that were happening under the surface. So she did want to work for the ministry of labor, and perhaps this was due in part to the fact that the Duarte family had lived in such poverty. I think that she did have good intentions for the poor people of Argentina, and she advocated things for higher wages and voting rights for women - also government subsidized housing for the poor. And it's important to know that at this time, Argentina had had a great influx of wealth. After World War II, a lot of the war torn European nations couldn't create their own crops. They couldn't grow their own wheat. Things like cattle and beef and livestock was down, so they had to import a lot of these things from Argentina. So Argentina hiked up export prices and taxes and was able to generate a lot of money for its own economy. So finally, under the Peron administration they were in a position to dole it out and use it properly.

Jane McGrath: And speaking of World War II, the whole political atmosphere at that time was very much influenced by the fascist dictatorships that had been going on in Europe at that time. Juan Peron is known for suppressing freedom of the press and freedom of speech during that time, but it was also things that - especially Eva - really latched onto, which were these issues of labor unions that made her particularly popular with the people at the time. And you could say she was even more than Princess Diana is in England.

Candace Gibson: Oh, that's a great comparison.

Jane McGrath: They share the same sort of mythology, I guess, because they both died rather young.

Candace Gibson: They did. And the nickname Evita comes from the group of people called Los Descamisados, which stands for the shirtless ones. And the shirtless ones, the Spanish term, had been used in a very derogatory manner to target people who were very poor and who lived in the slums of Argentina. By the Peronists essentially turned the term on its head and started using it in a very affectionate way. And history saw at this time Argentina change dramatically, because people would move to the cities and build it up. And there was economy and there was in dustrial activity. Things were flourishing. Evita was very happy because she had been the mastermind behind all of this. And she didn't let people forget. There were pictures of her plastered around the city. She made sure that wherever she went there was some sort of PR spokesperson with her. There was always someone taking pictures. She was very much in the public eye. And I think she enjoyed that.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, I think she did. She was very sly in terms of her PR tactics. As you said, she always had photographers around her and she was always doing photo ops, basically - doing charitable things. And speaking of charities, there was a lot of politics going on here among the traditional elite and their conflicts with Eva at the time. The official charity at the time was called Aid to Society - that's the translation into English. And she wanted to take charge of this, and the traditional elite did not want her to. Some say it was because she came from humble backgrounds and they weren't very receptive to her.

Candace Gibson: We can imagine that the women in the society were very elite. They were society women and they didn't want to associate with Eva.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And so, not to be outdone, started the Eva Peron Foundation! And using this, she ran the other official charity to the ground because she cut off the government funding for it and she redirected it to her own charity. And she was able to fund schools and hospitals, which all these things - orphanages and houses for the elderly - gave her more photo ops and made her more of a public figure that people loved.

Candace Gibson: People were very endeared to her. And it helps when you're in the public eye to have a certain appearance about you. And she had this shellacked beauty, with the perfectly coiffed dyed blonde hair and the manicured nails and the flawless makeup and the couture and the furs and the jewels. She was the whole package. And we mentioned that because of the taxes and all the revenue that Argentina was generating, they were able to disseminate a lot of that wealth to the poor. But a lot of it also went to Evita's closet. And she even went, like I said, on the Rainbow Tour. This was a meet and greet opportunity for her to go across Europe. And she met everyone from the Pope to General Franco. And she created a splash. But in the end, it was her own undoing. Because by 1951 when she was just about 33 years old, she became sick with uterine cancer and she was bedridden.

Jane McGrath: And it was about that same time that she got a nomination for vice president, which was a testament to how popular she was. She was someone who had recently been championing woman's suffrage, so I'm sure this was a huge step forward for that country. But the army actually forced her to withdraw it. I'm not sure of the details behind that. But anyway, she was dying of cancer at the time this happened, and she knew it. And the people around her who knew she was dying knew how special she would be even after death.

Candace Gibson: And so one of the finest pathologists at the time, Dr. Pedro Ara, was summoned. And he was going to have a very extensive embalming process of Eva's body. And so he began to prepare all of his materials and assemble all the supplies that he would need. Her hair was dyed one last time and her manicurist did her nails one last time. And then her body lay in state. She officially died on July 26, 1952 at 8:25 p.m. And her body lay in state at the ministry of labor. And people lined up for days - 13 days to be exact - to come and pay homage to Evita. Until finally, Dr. Ara got a little worried that they were going to soil or irreparably damage her body. So she was taken away and preparations were begun for the embalming process.

Jane McGrath: And although he had done some work before she was laid out and displayed, he continued the work after the display for several more months. And he was a famous embalmer at the time, which is interesting to me. I don't know how famous you can be as an embalmer. But as far as I could tell, he never divulged his complete details of the process of his embalming, but I did hear that he replaced her fluids with wax. And working here, I've learned a lot more about the embalming process than I ever wanted to know, which is zero. But I've never heard of that before. And I guess it worked, because to this day people say that her body is still intact.

Candace Gibson: Isn't that wild?

Jane McGrath: Yeah.

Candace Gibson: And it took about a year for him to complete the process. And we're not sure exactly the cost of it, but estimates are around $100,000. That's a lot. You think about the average cost of a funeral today - and that's just for the embalming process. We're not talking about her casket or the monument that was built for her. And this is where the story takes a very juicy turn.

Jane McGrath: That's right. We're not over just because she died.

Candace Gibson: No. We've just begun you all. The Peron government was on the verge of collapse because the food supplies had started to dwindle. And because there weren't a lot of gra in crops left, it was affecting the cattle crops. So they didn't have anything to trade, so they couldn't get coal and oil. So everything was just all going to heck. And we'd mentioned earlier that a lot of people had moved into the cities and things were industrious and they were booming. Well now those areas were turning into slums. Unemployment was up and it was just a mess.

Jane McGrath: And add that to the fact that Eva had just died, so Juan was not quite as popular as he had been.

Candace Gibson: No. So the whole environment in Argentina was ripe for a coup. And that happened in 1955. Peron was overthrown and he was exiled to Spain. But the coups leaders knew that if Peronists had Eva's body, they could use it as a bargaining chip and show it off to her loyal supporters to win support back.

Jane McGrath: To rally the masses, yeah.

Candace Gibson: It was a real Snow White situation. They had this beautiful woman in a glass coffin. You show it to someone, you have a strong emotional attachment to them - you're not going to forget that you are still loyal to her husband. So they decided they were going to hide the body.

Jane McGrath: And so they actually made decoy bodies of Eva - some were complete replicas of her body made of wax to throw people off. And they sent decoy bodies to different places, but they sent the real body to an undisclosed burial location in Italy. And they used a fake name on the gravesite.

Candace Gibson: And even before she got to Italy, there was some rigmarole in Argentina where the coups leaders tried to bury her in an unmarked grave plot, and the guy who was responsible for that - he got creeped out because some superstitious stuff started happening. So he stashed the body in an attic. Then it was discovered, and then she eventually got shipped off to Italy.

Jane McGrath: And so she was Italy for a long time. And Juan Peron at that time was living in exile in Madrid. They finally allowed them to turn over the body to Juan Peron in Spain at the time. So he kept it there for a little while. When there was another military overthrow, they brought Juan Peron back to the presidency again in Argentina. And by this time - they actually left Eva's body there at first. And so Juan Peron is back in the presidency, but he soon dies. He actually doesn't last very long - less than a year, I believe. And meantime, he's married again. His wife, Isabel, takes over. It's controversial. She's not incredibly popular. And so in a last ditch effort to win back the people's praise and favor, she actually has Eva's body shipped back to Argentina where it belongs, and put it next to her husband, Juan Peron's, body in the presidential palace.

Candace Gibson: That's a way to get some clout.

Jane McGrath: True.

Candace Gibson: And if you guys have been keeping track of the timeline here, we know that Peron came back to Argentina in '71. And I think he died around '74 or so. So Eva's body has been unburied for 24 years at this point and time.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, that's a good point.

Candace Gibson: So she's in state. And then finally it is time to bury her. And we want to do this right. So they commissioned a company that manufactures bank vaults to create this incredibly intricate, bomb proof, fire proof, whatever proof coffin for Eva. And she's taken to the Duarte family tomb in Buenos Aires. And she's buried there about 20 feet underground and her sister was given the only key to the tomb. And supposedly it was decked to the nines with security and it's completely burglary proof - and as far as we know, it's still undisturbed. However, Juan Peron was not so lucky. Even though his was made with bulletproof glass, thieves got in and were able to cut off his hands.

Jane McGrath: Oh, that's disgusting.

Candace Gibson: And it was a real scandal trying to track down who had what information about that crime. And a lot of people died suspiciously, so I'm not sure that that is a solved case yet.

Jane McGrath: And people are still pretty preoccupied and very attracted to the allure of Eva's body to this day. In the 1990s, this author named Thomas Elroy Martinez wrote a book named Santa Evita, and he was able to get a lot of research from military informants who had contact with Juan Peron when he was living in Spain. So he actually wrote a novel - not a history book -- about it. He said that the information he found was so incredible that the truth needed to be told in novel form. So if y ou go look up this book, take everything with a grain of salt. But he does describe very detailed accounts of Juan keeping the corpse - at least when he was living in Madrid - in an open casket in his dining room. And Isabel, his new wife, had been combing her hair daily.

Candace Gibson: Wow.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. Very odd.

Candace Gibson: Pretty wild.

Jane McGrath: But it just goes to show that people want to buy this novel. People want to read more about this dead body.

Candace Gibson: I kind of do, too. Not necessarily because I'm obsessed with Eva and her dead body, but that's the great thing about history. So much of the topics sound like they're made for the movies or they're made for fiction. And if it's true that there is nothing new under the sun, then I'm sure we'll hear another story like this again another day. But for now, Ms. Erin O'Brien, that is your juicy South American scoop. I hope it was juicy enough for you; it certainly was for me and Jane, as well. And for the interim, for more South American history and dictator stories, be sure to check out howstuffworks.com.

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