Victorian Lost Race Fiction—Aztec Freakery & Quackery

“The most circumstantial fiction which the brain of an advertising agent ever conceived”

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560. VELASQUEZ, Pedro (pseudonym). Illustrated Memoir of an Eventful Expedition into Central America Resulting in the Discovery of the Idolatrous City of Iximaya, in an Unexplored Region; and the Possession of Two Remarkable Aztec Children, Maximo, (the Man), & Bartola, (the Girl), Descendants and Specimens of the Sacerdotal Cast, (Now Nearly Extinct), of the Ancient Aztec Founders of the Ruined Temples of that Country, Described by John L. Stephens, Esq., and Other Travellers. Translated from the Spanish of Pedro Velasquez of San Salvador. [London, ca. 1856]. [i-v] vi-viii, [1] 2-38 pp., 6 lithograph plates of Mesoamerican ethnological fantasia printed in red (including engraved half-title) by George Dorrington, text figures. 8vo (18.2 x 12.3 cm), original red and white lithograph pictorial wrappers, original stitching. Minor wear and light browning to fragile wraps, else fine.

     This London edition has lithograph plates, but the U.S. editions have only the text figures. Printing priority undetermined. The English engraver’s name (George Dorrington, Bénézit III, p. 316) and the prefatory matter make it obvious that the present copy is a London edition, which is extremely rare compared to the U.S. editions. The “second letter” of Humboldt at front is dated 1856, and the table of measurements at back is dated London, June 30, 1853. This book is a condensation of the Memoir of an Eventful Expedition in Central America (New York, 1850). Bleiler, Science-Fiction: The Early Years 2227. Field 1597 (Memoir) & Field Auction 2424 (the NY edition fetched 62 cents). Locke, A Spectrum of Fantasy, p. 218: “As is hinted in the title, the whole purpose of this hoax, which became a travelling performance, was to capitalize on the extraordinary interest that Stephens’ two books on his discoveries in the Mayan lands had aroused. It can also be classed as ‘Lost Race fiction.’” Palau 357485. Sabin 91301 note & 98812 (Memoir): “The Spanish original of the above and its author are myths. The chief interest lies in its connection with the history of the American circus, having been published to advertise the exhibition of the supposed ‘Aztec’ children. A ms. note of E.G. S[quier] filed with Joseph Sabin’s memoranda states that the children were born in the town of Usulutan, or Usulatan, southwest of San Miguel, of mixed Indian, Spanish, and negro stock. Frequently reprinted in connection with exhibitions in the United States and in England, with the title ‘Illustrated Memoir.’” If Barnum did not write the Memoir and this condensation, he certainly must have commissioned them.

     According to R. Tripp Evans, Romancing the Maya: Mexican Antiquity in the American Imagination, 1820-1915 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004, pp. 85-86) showman Phineas T. Barnum was so taken with John Lloyd Stephens’ two travel and archaeological books (see herein) that he created his own squib, Memoir on an Eventful Expedition in Central America, which went through numerous editions (New York, 1850). In it is recorded the adventures of a writer and artist who discovered the lost city of Iximaya and brought back the Aztec children. By 1852, Barnum had created so much excitement with his “discovery” that the children were being hosted and seen by adoring crowds. Barnum had actually found the two in El Salvador in 1849, and their physiognomy, though accounted for by either dwarfism or microcephaly, was considered just Aztec-looking enough that they passed muster in some quarters as the genuine thing. Sabin (Field Auction 2424) states that the two children were “descendants of an Irish woman living in Central America.” Despite their dubious parentage, the two children were written up in serious medical and science literature of the time.

     Another interpretation is that such freaks were proof of ethnic and racial dead ends that would probably be wiped out by the advance of European civilizations, a belief that turned out in many cases to be all too true (see Robert D. Aguirre “Exhibiting Degeneracy: The Aztec Children and the Ruins of Race” in Victorian Review, Vol. 29, No. 2, Winter 2003, pp. 40-63.) Another opinion is that of Lara Kriegel (“After the Exhibitionary Complex: Museum Histories and the Future of the Victorian Past” in Victorian Studies, Vol. 48, No. 4, Summer, 2006, pp. 681-704):

Victorian freakery...enlisted itself in the service of empire, as the exhibition in the 1850s of Maximo and Bartola, two Mayan children billed as “Aztec Lilliputians,” attested.... The issue of audience reception poses a perennial challenge for scholars of the spectacular past. Nevertheless, the apparent appeal of the “Aztec Lilliputians” suggests that an early-nineteenth-century interest in the “irregular” and the “misshapen” persisted well into the golden age of the exhibitionary complex, which allegedly appealed to more respectable pleasures. The appearance of such exhibitions in the 1850s also underscores [the] claim that ethnography, rather than archaeology, became the primary means for showcasing Central America as the nineteenth century wore on.

     Jane Goodall views the Aztec Lilliputians in context of Darwin’s theory of evolution (Performance and Evolution in the Age of Darwin: Out of the Natural Order, London: Routledge, 2002, pp. 5 & 64):

Since theatre and performance not only provided entertainment for the widest spectrum of the public, but were also a major form of general communication about topical issues, they are important indicators of the reception of evolutionary ideas.... They tell us much about the spirit in which certain themes were treated. What does it mean that the ape ancestor should be treated as a common joke, or white gentlemen playing primitives should generate screaming hilarity, or a presentation of Lilliputian Aztecs be taken seriously?... In exhibitions created for popular entertainment, experiments with the image of the human species depended for their success on a mixture of science and fantasy. The showman’s favorite guidebook to ethnology was Gulliver’s Travels, and Lilliput was the imaginary space into which some of the most successful racial creations were projected, but those presented to the public as Missing Links and Lilliputians were introduced as authentic facts, living evidence in the most important scientific debates of the era. Barnum liked variety in his explanations as in his exhibits and he mixed and matched freely, regardless of any conceptual clashes in his points of reference.

     It is disturbing that the names of Humboldt and Stephens were invoked to lend some creditability to this publication. On the other hand, it is to be remembered that through the study of popular culture, often one may more readily discern cultural truths. Field has the final word: “It is the most circumstantial fiction which the brain of an advertising agent ever conceived.”


Auction 23 Abstracts

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