However, Bartola and Maximo were not Aztecs; and neither Pedro Velasquez nor Iximaya actually existed. Their life story pamphlet was actually a doctored up version of American lawyer and explorer John Lloyd Stephens’ travelogue, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (1841), a text that revitalized interest in Mayan antiquity during the nineteenth century. The wild romance of the “Aztec Children” was nothing more than freak show fabrication. Bartola and Maximo’s actual origins are unknown, but they were most likely born in San Salvador, although conflicting reports cite Mexico as their home. Most likely, they were both born with microcephaly, a neurodevelopmental disorder that impaired physical and cognitive development, earning them the nicknames the “Aztec Children” and “Aztec Lilliputians.” An opportunistic showman Ramon Silva (or Selva) brokered a deal with Bartola and Maximo’s parents in which they would receive a sum of money and the children would be provided schooling in North America. A consummate crook, Silva never made it the U.S.A., finding himself detained in jail and the children unattended. After changing a few sets of hands, Bartola and Maximo first appeared with their impresario J. Morris in Boston, MA in the early 1850s. After catching the attention of Horace Greeley and President Millard Fillmore, they travelled to London in 1853 to meet Queen Victoria and other of Europe’s aristocratic luminaries. For the next fifty years, they were continuously exhibited in London, Europe, and the US. They even briefly worked with P.T. Barnum, one of the most famous nineteenth-century showmen, which testified to just how popular the “Aztecs” were.
The “Aztecs” may have been singular, but their freak show materials weren’t...
However... a turn of the page tells a different story: Memoirs of an Eventful Expedition in Central America, Resulting in an Unexplored Region of the Idolatrous City of Iximaya in an Unexplored Region; and the Possession of Two Remarkable Aztec Children:
Bartola and Maximo’s outlandish biography (and freak show artifacts more generally) offer truly wild instances of these processes of misplacement. Totally shameless, Bartola and Maximo’s impresarios did not even attempt to adapt Stephens’ book: instead, entire sections of travelogue were copied and laced together with schlocky entr’actes showcasing the “Aztecs” whose textual presence is communicated through a smaller typeface. So if the moments of “mystery” in Stephens’ travelogue symbolize the limits to the reach of colonialism, Bartola and Maximo’s narrative literally fills in the gaps with their narrative, just as diminutive as their bodies.
Their pamphlet wan't the only strange episode in the story of the Aztecs...
The brother-sister wedding scheme re-enacts the cultural customs of ancient “Aztecs,” their priestly caste forbidden from intermarriage, but through a distinctly modern sensibility. Unfortunately, married life for the “Aztecs” was not all fun and games and it too became fodder for the freak show’s “artful deception.” When they returned for a mid-1880s tour of North American dime museums, gossipy reports surfaced of marital discord. The North American maintains that during a show at the Ninth and Arch Dime Museum (Philadelphia, PA) “Maximo, the Aztec gentlemen …kept his eyes riveted on the platform occupied by the seven beautiful Sutherland sisters.” Enamored of their operatic singing voices and “Niagara of Curls,” Maximo cast a desiring eye, and handkerchief, the way of the youngest sister, Julia. His lovemaking earned him the ire of Bartola who “would no doubt have wreaked summary vengeance on his curly pate had she not been promptly secured.” While an interesting little interlude in the private lives of freak performers, this eyewitness report this dissention at the dime museum may be apocryphal seeing as how a “Julia Sutherland” never existed. Whatever the case may be, it does confirm American humorist William Livingston Alden’s contention that all freaks do is fall in love and quarrel in William Livingston Alden Among the Freaks.
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c19 scholar interested in all things freakish