The strange, grisly saga of Eva Perón’s corpse

Eva and Juan Perón greeting crowds from the presidential balcony in Buenos Aires, 1950 - Getty
Eva and Juan Perón greeting crowds from the presidential balcony in Buenos Aires, 1950 - Getty

Such was the outpouring of public grief following the death in July 1952 of Eva Perón, wife of Argentine President Juan Perón, that crowds surged dangerously towards her body as it was being moved to the Ministry of Labour building. More than 20,000 people were treated for crush injuries and eight died. But that was only the beginning of the peculiar, violent and lurid exploits surrounding the cadaver of this divisive figure, as a new Salma Hayek-produced Disney+ drama reveals.

Santa Evita, a miniseries 10 years in the making, has been labelled “true-life fiction” by another of its executive producers, Leonardo Aranguibel, although you could apply all kinds of genre labels to it: political conspiracy, grisly medical drama, a post-MeToo reckoning, a riff on the Curse of the Mummy, or just pure horror.

It’s largely based on Tomás Eloy Martinez’s 1995 novel of the same name, which similarly blended fact and fiction; a journalist character based on Martinez, Mariano Vázquez, appears in the series. The book has sold an astonishing 10 million copies worldwide, demonstrating the continued fascination with Eva Perón and what actually happened to her body.

Hers was an extraordinary rise from ignominious beginnings – born illegitimate, and raised in poverty and shame – to become the First Lady of Argentina. She reinvented herself in Buenos Aires as an actress, before taking on the role of a lifetime: wife of her country’s President, and a vital propagandist tool for his regime. She toured Europe, extolling the virtues of Perón, and he in turn gave her the moniker “Spiritual Leader of the Nation”. Many revered her as a revolutionary champion of women and the poor; others saw her as cynical celebrity cover for a brutal fascist dictatorship.

Eva was treated, unsuccessfully, for cervical cancer, including a radical hysterectomy and chemotherapy – the first-ever Argentine to undergo the latter. She died at 8:25pm on July 26 1952, aged 33, and her passing was announced on radio broadcasts throughout Argentina. This, at least, we know for certain.

But what happened next is the source of feverish speculation. In some ways, her power only grew after death. As Martinez puts it: “No other corpse has meant so much to a nation than Eva Perón’s to Argentina.” He received explosive information from a number of informants, such as members of the intelligence service, which formed the basis of his book. Decades on, they wanted the truth to be known.

Yet the truth is almost unbelievable. It begins with Juan Perón paying an eye-watering $100,000 for physician Pedro Ara to embalm his wife’s body, replacing her blood with glycerine to preserve her organs (which are normally removed) and tissue – a delicate process that took several years. The intended effect was “artistically rendered sleep”. There is no record of Eva requesting this embalming.

Perón also had grand plans to display his popular wife’s body, to feed the growing myth around this saintly figure and encourage continued worship –  and maintain his own rule. He wanted to build a monument that would dwarf the Statue of Liberty, prominently featuring a descamisado (literally “shirtless” –  a member of the working class, and the Peróns’ fervent supporters). Eva’s body would be enshrined in a glass coffin at the base of the monument, like Lenin’s body in Moscow.

But before he could complete the project, Perón was ousted in a coup and escaped abroad – leaving Eva’s body behind. “That woman”, as the anti-Perón faction called her, was now their problem, and still a dangerous lightning rod for potential revolutionary action. As Martinez chronicles, the new regime feared that rebels were planning to steal the body, place it in a boat full of flowers, sail it down the river and use it to spark an uprising.

Eva and Juan Perón in 1951 - Bettmann
Eva and Juan Perón in 1951 - Bettmann

The vice-president ordered that the body be made to disappear. “Turn her into a dead woman like any other.” But how? She must not be burned; the body should be buried in Christian ground, since she had made a last confession and died in God’s grace.

Colonel Carlos Eugenio de Moori Koenig was charged with this gruesome task. He studied the embalmer’s report, trying to decide the best course of action, and here Martinez conveys the bizarre fetishisation of Eva’s body. The Colonel read that Evita’s skin looked as taut as a 20-year-old’s, and that even though her body was now full of formaldehyde, paraffin and zinc chloride, it smelled like almond and lavender. She had such an ethereal loveliness that her husband had even tried kissing her lips, as if to rouse her like Sleeping Beauty.

The Colonel tracked down the embalmer, Ara, and demanded the body’s release. “Whoever has the woman has the country in the palm of their hand,” the Colonel stated. In fact, there was already more than one of those powerful symbols. Eva’s mother, Doña Juana, recalled the nightmarish moment when Ara showed her the eerie twin of her daughter’s corpse lying on a slab, another lounging on black velvet pillows, and a third sat in an armchair apparently reading a postcard.

Ara proudly told the horrified woman how he and an Italian sculptor had made the copies out of wax, vinyl and fibreglass, with indelible dye for the veins. When the military came to remove the body, Ara planned to give them a replica and keep the real one for himself. He offered the grieving mother a copy to bury. Her succinct reply: “Go to hell.”

The Colonel, meanwhile, had begun receiving threats: sinister phone calls and strangers coming to the house, warning him to leave the “señora” alone. But he persevered, burying the three copies in identical coffins at different sites around Buenos Aires, and storing the real Eva in a truck parked next to the Intelligence building under guard. But her fans soon found her and started leaving flowers and candles.

Argentines mourning the death of Eva Perón in 1952 - Alamy
Argentines mourning the death of Eva Perón in 1952 - Alamy

According to Martinez, the body was moved around several military locations: storerooms, battalion cellars, mess kitchens. She also spent time at the city waterworks and behind the screen at the Rialto cinema: a peculiar return to the cinema for the former actress.

Her next resting place - though not exactly restful – was with Major Arancibia, who became obsessed with Eva. Horrific reports suggest that he sexually defiled it, and that when he was discovered by his pregnant wife, Elena, he shot her in the throat. His defence was that he’d mistaken her for a burglar. Elena’s sister Margot testified to a military judge that there were “horrible stains, heaven only knows what filth” on the body: “Eduardo has been with the cadaver for all those weeks.” The case was hushed up.

Eva’s corpse resumed its nomadic wandering, with the firm stipulation that it be kept away from the Intelligence building, but the Colonel – by now, per Martinez’s account, driven mad by his task and in the grip of a necrophiliac passion – took back possession of the body. In a rage, after berating Eva for not returning his love, he ordered his officers to urinate on her. He also chopped off one of her fingers, to prove it was the real corpse. The Colonel was imprisoned.

And what of Eva’s body? The government finally succeeded in smuggling her out of the country – supposedly with covert help from the Vatican – and, in 1971, she was discovered in Milan, buried standing up under the false name of Maria Maggi de Magistris. The body was exhumed and taken to Juan Perón’s home in Spain, where he kept it on the dining room table. His new wife Isabel diligently combed Eva’s hair daily, and Juan even encouraged her to lie beside Eva, in the hope that she might absorb some of the charismatic goddess’s magic.

In an extraordinary comeback, Perón returned to Argentina in 1973 and was elected President once again. When he died in 1974, Isabel succeeded him, and it was she who ordered that Eva’s body be repatriated and displayed with her husband’s – although she did so mainly to appease the terrorist group Montoneros, who had stolen the corpse of former dictator Pedro Eugenio Aramburu and held it hostage until she complied with their demands.

Even then, the strange occurrences continued. The two civil guards who transported Eva’s body from her grave in Madrid got into an argument about a gambling debt, shot at each other and crashed. The van caught on fire and both died – although the coffin was unscathed.

Eva Perón lying in state in the Ministry of Labour - AP
Eva Perón lying in state in the Ministry of Labour - AP

Then, in 1976, Eva’s body was taken from the presidential residence in Olivos to her family’s mausoleum in Recoleta Cemetary. Two soldiers were in the ambulance transporting it, carrying rifles with fixed bayonets. The ambulance driver suffered a heart attack, and during the sudden stop, the soldiers accidentally severed each other’s jugular veins with their bayonets. They were found in a pool of blood.

Finally, though, Eva’s long journey was over. She was placed in a fortified crypt, five metres underground, in a marble tomb with a trapdoor in the floor leading to a room with two coffins – and then a second trapdoor leading to Eva’s actual coffin.

But the legend lives on. Although Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice refrained from telling the story of this travelling corpse in their musical Evita, it was told with relish in Pablo Aguero’s 2015 exceedingly creepy film Eva Doesn’t Sleep, starring Gael Garcia Bernal. Now, Martinez’s version will reach a new audience via the Disney+ series. He has made the bold claim that it points to something wider, too: Argentina’s long-standing “tendency towards necrophilia.” But surely nothing quite matches the profound otherworldliness of Eva’s body – whether revered or savaged, viewed as that of a heavenly saint or a cursed monster.

Alejandro Maci, co-director of the new Santa Evita series, has also hinted at a topical gender politics slant. “This is a woman who is appropriated in a perverse manner by an infinite number of men, all military. That’s now part of our contemporary conversation.” So, too, is a greater understanding of the symbolic power of a beautiful, famous woman who died young – and, in Eva’s case, has been frozen in time physically, not just in our collective memory. As her life and afterlife are sensationally dramatised in yet another form, Eva Perón rises once again.