Online: Object of the Month
Extraordinary Living Wonders: The Aztec Children in Boston
Images from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Not to be reproduced without permission.
"The Remarkable Aztec Children"
In November and December of 1850, for a twenty-five cent admission fee (12 1/2 cents for children), Bostonians could view two remarkable specimens of the human race, known to the world as the "Aztec Children." Small in stature and clad in Aztec-themed costumes, the two were billed as "descendants and specimens of the Sacerdotal Caste (now nearly extinct) of the Ancient Aztec Founders of the Ruined Temples of that Country." Their slanted heads resembled illustrations of profile illustrations from Central American ruins that appeared in John Lloyd Stephens' best-seller Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. To make the illusion complete, a fantastical account of their origins was sold at the children's appearances, entitled Memoir of an Eventful Expedition in Central America, Resulting in the Discovery of the Idolatrous City of Iximaya.
The Aztec Children first appeared in this country around 1849, under the management of an American promoter named Morris, and toured the country and the world for at least 40 years, to much popular acclaim. They visited the White House as the guest of President Millard Fillmore and amazed the crowned heads of Europe. For many years, the "Aztecs" were managed by P. T. Barnum, appearing at his American Museum and touring with the circus. Although many visitors believed the incredible tale of the Aztec Children's origins, the Society's copy of Memoir of an Eventful Expedition features a telling annotation: "This story was admitted, by the exhibitor of the children called Aztecs, to be a fabrication, made in N.York, 'to serve as an advertisement ...'"
A Nearly Extinct Race of Mankind?
In addition to their popularity with audiences, the two also attracted much attention from the medical and phrenological communities. After their visit to Boston in 1850, Dr. Jonathan Mason Warren published an illustrated article on the pair in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences, which was later issued as a pamphlet. Choosing to stick to the facts, Warren identified the children as "Indian dwarfs," clearly not crediting the story of their semi-divine origins. Warren minutely describes their physical characteristics, down to their "slightly webbed" fingers and their posture, which "may well be compared to that of some of the Simian tribe." Of their intellectual capability, Warren observed that they were "quite imitative," but "with regard to any communication by signs or language which they may have with each other, it appears to be not much greater than what might be expected from two intelligent individuals of the canine race ..." Warren goes on to compare the size of their heads to that of infants, idiotic children, chimpanzees, and orangutangs, concluding that the Aztec Children, "although of very low mental organization ... cannot be pronounced idiots of the lowest grade." View online presentations of the watercolor illustrations that accompanied Warren's work: "Aztec Dwarf (Female)" and "Aztec Dwarf (Male)"
The Rest of the Story
Although billed as the survivors of an ancient Aztec race, the real story of Maximo and Bartola is much less glamorous. In one version of the story, the two--who suffered from microcephaly and had limited physical and intellectual abilities--were discovered in the village of Decora in San Salvador by Ramon or Raymond Selva, who promised their mother he would take them to America to be cured of their affliction. Instead, he sold them to a promoter, Mr. Morris, who created the spectacular tale of their origins and started them on their decades-long odyssey as sideshow performers. At one point, the two were even married to each other as a publicity stunt. Although the final years of the "Aztec Children" are clouded in mystery (Maximo died in 1913, Bartola's death date is not known), their popularity spawned the sideshow careers of many other microcephalics, as public curiosity about human curiosities continued unabated.
Sources for Further Reading
Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
MHS Miscellany, Spring 1992 (no. 50).
Thomson, Rosemarie Garland, ed. Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York: New York University Press, 1996.
Velasquez, Pedro. Memoir of an Eventful Expedition in Central America: Resulting in the Discovery of the Idolatrous City of Iximaya, in an Unexplored Region; and the Possession of Two Remarkable Aztec Children, Descendants and Specimens of the Sacerdotal caste. New York: J. W. Bell, 1850.
Warren, Jonathan Mason. An Account of Two Remarkable Indian dwarfs Exhibited in Boston under the Name of Aztec Children. Boston: John Wilson & Son, 1851.
Sources Available Online
The Massachusetts Historical Society owns a daguerreotype of Maximo and Bartola, taken circa 1851.
For more pictures of Maximo and Bartola, visit the Sideshow World website.