Juan Perón, a widowed army officer who came into politics in his forties, met 24-year-old Eva in 1944. The couple hit it off immediately and married the next year. Juan had garnered a certain amount of power and influence and managed to win the presidency of Argentina in 1946. Eva became a favorite of the masses and the laborers called descamisados, shirtless ones, because they took off their shirts to work. The Perón presidency was wildly popular among the poor but despised by the upper classes. Perón had to navigate strange political waters where some leftists were on his side and others backed the opposition which was often composed of Perón’s fellow officers; he aided refugee Nazis and refugee Jews; he spent much on social programs and brought in such reforms as female suffrage, universal medical care, and social security for the old while stashing millions for his own extravagant lifestyle; he was accused of being a fascist by the U.S. government and a commie by the Argentine upper class. Many in Argentina today describe themselves as Perónista but there is no easy definition of what that term means.Eva devoted herself to working for the underclasses and promoting her husband. In 1951, when Juan was running for his second term, Eva was proposed as vice-president but the opposition from anti-Perónistas and her diagnosis of cervical cancer ended that possiblity. Juan Perón won the election but Eva died in 1952. Juan hired a master undertaker, Dr. Pedro Ara, to preserve her body and so he did, pumping her corpse full of chemicals and coating her skin with flexible plastic. The process took several years and cost over $100,000 US at the time. A coup drove Juan Perón from office in 1955. He fled to other South American nations, where the politics were no less volatile than Argentina’s and left them as his protectors were overthrown, Finally, he wound up in Spain, where he lived with Isabel, his third wife.
Meanwhile, those who had driven Juan from office still had Eva’s body to deal with. They seized it from Ara, who had also made several life-size wax stand-ins. In order to be sure that they really had Eva, the army officers snipped off a finger and had it analyzed to make certain that this was a human body and not a wax effigy.
For a time it was under the care of Colonel Carlos Koening. It was hidden in various places, including the apartment of Koening’s deputy,who accidentally shot his pregnant wife one night, thinking she was a body snatcher. There are lurid tales that army officers mistreated the corpse or even had sex with it but these stories are not, and probably never will be, confirmed. Eventually, in 1957, Eva’s corpse was shipped out of Argentina and wound up in an Italian grave under a false name.
In 1970, an anti-government band kidnapped President Pedro Aramburu, who they later murdered. Among their demands was that he tell them where Eva’s body was located. He did so. The group made several demands to the government, including the return of Eva’s body. So, one day, Juan and Isabel were surprised when a coffin was delivered to their Spanish home. A Perón associate, Carlos Spadone said:
General Perón, the gardener and I took the body out of the coffin… We lay it on a marble-topped table. Our hands got dirty from all the earth, so the body had to be cleaned. Isabel took care of that very carefully with a cotton cloth and water. She combed the hair, and cleaned it bit by bit, and then blow-dried it. It took several days. … There was a large dent in the nose, and there were blows to the face and chest, and marks on the back… There had also been a serious blow to one knee; but I don’t think she had been strung up or whipped, as some people say — I don’t believe that.
The coffin rested on a coffee table in Perón’s house. Isabel brushed its hair every day. There are reports that Juan made her lie beside Eva’s body to soak up her charisma. There are also reports that Juan was slipping into dementia at the end of his life.
Juan had remained a political force while in exile and, in 1973, when Argentina demanded he come back, he returned. One of his demands was that Eva’s body come back, too. Soon, he was president again. He contracted for a huge mausoleum to house Eva’s body which was to be housed in a glass coffin. Art restorer Domingo Tellechea was hired to patch up the cadaver. He reported that the corpse had suffered some damage but cleaned up real nice.
Juan had a fatal heart attack in 1974. At the funeral [video here], his casket was closed, but Eva was displayed next to him. Isabel, who had political ambitions, announced that they would be buried together in a showcase mausoleum. Isabel tried to lead the government but was overthrown within a year by the military junta that fought both the Falklands War and the Dirty War. For a little while, Eva’s body vanished.The junta decided not to mess with Eva. She was handed over to her family who entombed the coffin under meters of concrete and sheets of steel. Juan’s vault was a little more open and, in 1987, a group broke into it and sawed off his hands which they held for ransom. The ransom was not paid and the hands have vanished. Many officials who investigated the crime have died under mysterious circumstances which suggests an official, perhaps Army, connection. In 2006, when Juan’s body was moved to a new crypt, there were riots that resulted in injuries to more than forty people. At this time, DNA was extracted to settle a paternity case against Juan. (He wasn’t the father.)
There is a move to have Juan and Eva’s bodies buried side by side. Isabel has given her okay but many are concerned that this will be an opportunity either for further indignities to the corpses or a focus for political violence, depending on the critics’ priorities.
Academics have looked at the phenomenon of revered Argentine cadavers and have suggested a link to medieval veneration of saints and their corporeal relics. This theory has been echoed by novelists such as Eloy Martinez. The loss of Juan’s hands has made his corpse less effective than that of Eva’s, they say — that finger was not so important after all. Eva’s tomb is supposed to be able to withstand a nuclear blast, something that must reassure Argentineans, though I am left with the vision of a destroyed planet whose only remaining relic to be discovered by alien archaeologists is the corpse of Eva Perón.