You don’t need to crawl through the narrow passages of Egypt’s Great Pyramids to meet your favorite mummy. Step inside Guanajuato, Mexico’s Museo de las Momias, and you’ll come face to face with the shockingly well-preserved remains of men, women, and children – many of them victims of a cholera outbreak that occurred nearly 200 years ago.
The origin of this morbid museum happened largely by accident. After the cholera epidemic of 1833, Guanajuato officials were running out of space to bury the dead. To counter the problem, the village levied a grave tax in the 1860s that required all surviving family members to pay rent on the burial plots of their dearly departed.
If family members failed to pay the tax? The bodies were dug up and removed from the cemetery.
Yet when workers began removing past-due corpses, they discovered Guanajuato’s naturally arid conditions had mummified the remains – preserving the skin, hair, and even clothes of the deceased.
Just over 100 bodies were disinterred between 1865 and 1958, almost all because of their families’ inability to pay the fee. The bodies were originally kept in storage, until cemetery workers realized people would pay money to view the bodies.
Of the 111 mummies in the collection, perhaps the creepiest is that of Ignacia Aguilar, a woman who was later found to be buried alive. Her last scream remains frozen on her curled lips, sending shivers through those who see her.
At the time of her supposed death, victims of cholera were buried quickly to minimize the risk of further infection – it was not uncommon for a person to pass away and end up six feet under in the same day. With so many people dying of the disease, deaths were occasionally declared preemptively.
Ignacia had a lifelong heart condition that made her heartbeat difficult to detect. Most of her life, this wasn’t a problem. However, as she lay sick and unconscious with cholera, the seeming absence of a pulse was all the locals needed to place her body in a coffin and bury her beneath the ground. When Ignacia’s body was exhumed, there were bite marks on her arm, blood beneath her fingernails, and that eternal scream locked on her face.
Along with Ignacia, there are also the mummified bodies of about 20 children, including what some claim is the smallest mummy in the world: a fetus, likely miscarried at approximately 24 weeks. A woman’s corpse, also in the collection, shows evidence of having died in childbirth, and may be the fetus’s mother, though there is no conclusive evidence of this connection.
Many of the mummified children wear ceremonial clothing, which points to the Catholic tradition of dressing girls as angels and boys as saints to assist in their admission to heaven.
When the museum first opened, the bodies were housed in a poorly lit crypt beneath the cemetery. Visitors carried a torch or candle to view the bodies – certainly adding to the creepy atmosphere. They were even allowed to touch the mummies. Sometimes, guests broke off bits for souvenirs and to confirm the corpses were real.
Visit the Mummy Museum of Guanajuato today, and you’ll encounter a far more sanitary facility. The site is well-ventilated and properly lit, and the bodies on display are carefully preserved behind glass.
Nevertheless, the sad stories of the deceased haven’t been lost in the modernization process. Viewing the mummified faces of the dead – such as those of the infants or poor Ignacia – is as bone-chilling now as it was all those years ago.