MEXICO CITY: Burn the Witch!


One of the concepts that I find most delightful and perplexing about Mexico City is how European the city is. The nation maintains a rich cultural heritage that comes from the indigenous peoples, but Mexico City itself would not feel out of place were it dropped in the middle of Europe. The size of the city, the scope of European control, and the way the conquest of the New World operated makes Mexico City incredibly unique.

Coming from the United States, we grow up in a strange and isolating bubble. We are raised to think of the United States as the center of the world. It’s ethnocentric, don’t get me wrong, and it’s not healthy, but it’s the way our culture works. If I had never started travelling and spending considerable time out of the country, I would never have understood how deeply odd this is. If you’re reading this and don’t understand, I get that too. I’ve never been to a place in the world that is so connected to the world and yet so willingly removed from it as the United States is. I’m not sure what led us to behave this way, but it’s an ingrained behavior. Not necessarily bad and not necessarily good.

I say all that to say, while we had the Salem Witch Trials and all, Mexico actually went through the drama and insanity of the freaking SPANISH INQUISITION. I never fully understood how close to home the Inquisition came to the United States. The church was going at it relentlessly in Mexico City. People were being tortured left and right. You wouldn’t believe some of the atrocities that human beings have done to each other. Well you live in the Trump Era, so I suppose you probably have a great idea of how awful people can be. Our government locks children up in cages after all and denies them access to their family and healthcare, so…don’t forget…we’re no better.

Jessica and I have always had rather macabre interests, and she will probably roll her eyes with intensity when she reads that I’ve written the word macabre. She believes I use it too much in my writing, but is it really possible to use a word so beautiful too much? I don’t think so. I refuse to change who I am. I’m going to use it as much as I possibly can. Macabre. Macabre. Macabre. We decided we needed to have a macabre day full of macabre things, so of course we decided to visit a museum dedicated to the various methods of torture implemented during the Spanish Inquisition. Cute!

The location of the museum has changed, but the information online isn’t really forthcoming, so it was difficult to figure out just where the display was. I decided that we should visit the old location that was still listed on the website and go from there. It wasn’t a lengthy walk, but it was a warm day, and Mexico City — as ever — was bustling with masses of people going every which way. Jessica didn’t care much for this crowd, but there was no alternative, so she bravely held up.

The museum we went to had a conveniently located placard identifying the location of the new exhibit, so we took note of that for a later time and visited the free museum here that housed a variety of fascinating medical rooms. It started off fairly normal, with a variety of dental tools and examples of the machines that physicians have used over the years to treat ailments of every kind. One display that I was particularly engaged by was dedicated to the diseases of the native people before and after European contact. They were not at all prepared for the unintentional biological warfare that the Spaniards inflicted on them.

Things started to get weird when we went to the second level of the museum.


Here were more grisly and gruesome exhibits that talked about more sensitive medical issues. I was fascinated by a plasticized body on display, something that has long befuddled and intrigued me. In Paris, there’s a deliciously unknown veterinary museum that houses a macabre display of animals and people who were plasticized and preserved by the very definition of a mad doctor a few centuries ago. He was chased out of Paris when people found out what he was doing with corpses in the lab. Most of the creations were destroyed, but a number of examples survived long enough to be put on display. Now you can see a man, flayed of skin, with plastic in his veins, riding astride a horse, flayed of skin, with plastic in his veins. It’s wild.


This body in Mexico City was not that wild but it was created using the same basic idea. I could have looked at it for ages.

There was also a completely disassembled human skull, which is something that I found delightful and illuminating, and I wonder why I’ve never seen such a thing before. Every single bone was detached from how it was put together by nature, but the doctor or the student or the medical teacher, could move them around and see how they fit together. It was like a modern manipulative 3D image, but over a century old. Fascinating.


The next room was fantastic for me. It was dedicated to one of my favorite pastimes, plastic surgery! I’ve never had a plastic surgery, mind you, but as I’ve said a million times, if I fail to look like Joan Rivers when I die, I will have lived my life wrong.

The plastic surgery was not the kind done in Beverly Hills or on my beloved Botched, it was reconstructive surgery required for people suffering from traumatic injury and birth defects. The exhibit started with historic examples of plastic surgery, something that I found completely fascinating. I had no idea how long this kind of surgery had been going on for. We’re talking about back into the ancient times, but the science really took off as we learned more and more about how the human body functions. It was marvelous to see before and after images of people who had their faces smashed or a cleft palate or a destroyed nose. The end results weren’t always pretty, mind you, but they were a major and massive improvement on the condition these people were in before. Of course these surgeries weren’t meant to be cosmetic, they were meant to make the lives better for the people who had deformities. After their intensive surgeries, these people could breathe, eat, blink, and even go out without feeling as self-conscious as they might once have done. I thought it was beautiful. Jessica was gagging.


Another exhibit was equally perplexing and engaging. Jessica was fascinated and disgusted again. This exhibit was dedicated to reproductive health. On the outskirts of the room were old plastic versions of human anatomy showing the effects of different venereal diseases. Who knew they were so gruesome!? It was horrible. You hear about syphilis and other diseases, but you really don’t know much about it. At least I don’t. I was rather horrified at the results these diseases had on people.

Jessica seemed perplexed and horrified and disgusted and shocked and more at the display that took up the center of the room. It showed the development of a fetus from the moment of conception to just before birth. I’m not sure how these samples were collected, but they were all preserved humans. I’d seen displays like this before, several times really, including a wonderfully fabulous example in Chicago that has stayed with my mind since childhood. It featured adult bodies that had been cut into thin slices and put between glass. You can look right inside of a body and it’s just wild. These babies were not cut apart, they were in one piece, and it was amazing to see what goes on inside of the human body.


I was annoyed that the museum dedicated to the Spanish Inquisition wasn’t here, so we moved on to our second stop, the Museum of Torture! This is an absolutely must see stop if you ever find yourself in Mexico City. The logo and media used for the exhibit are awful, I’ll just say this. It looks cheesy and like a cheap waxwork in ads, but the museum is actually well done with incredible examples of actual devices used to actually torture people. Humans are awful, y’all. The best part of the museum, though, was the soundtrack that was playing in the background. For some reason, a group of Gregorian monks were chanting “Only You” by Alison Moyet. It was the wildest thing I’ve experienced in a long time. Just look at this!

Europeans in the Medieval times were particularly nasty, and I was absolutely disgusted by the things I saw. Pictures aren’t allowed, so we will have to use online images or my memories. It starts out simply enough, just devices meant to shame criminals. If they stole or did something illegal, the evildoer might have to be put on display wearing a mask or a metal shackle or something awful but not necessarily deadly. Things took a turn for the worse from there.

I’ve always known that human beings are inherently nasty individuals. We quite like to harm other people emotionally and physically. I’ve seen evidence of this with the disgusting mudslinging of political campaigns and the aggressive mannerisms of many people from all walks of life. We are not as civilized as we like to think we are, and yet seeing this on display with actual artifacts that were used to torture and slaughter people was almost overwhelming. Of course the historian in me found it all utterly captivating, but the humanity in me was repulsed. I suppose I should talk about some of the devices that horrified me the most.

The one torture device that haunts me more than any of the others was basically a skull crusher. The individual would have their head placed inside of this thick, metal box that had a screw on the top. Basically, the screw would slowly be twisted as the victim was asked questions. If the investigators were not thoroughly enthused with the results of their confession, they would continue to twist the screw. Eventually this would compress the jaw and a nightmarish thing would occur. The pressure would build and build as the metal plates pressed down on the top of the skull and on the bottom of the jaw. We all know what happens next, or at least we think we do. I mean, the victim is likely going to die one way or the other, but the manner of murder is nightmarish to me. It seems that teeth are not so strong as they look or appear, and anybody who has cracked a tooth knows this. The pressure would build and build and then…the teeth would literally explode. I grimace still at the thought of this. The jaw crushed next, and then eventually the skull cap, and then the brain, and then…if the person was still alive…death. Of course I took copious notes about this because this location is sure to feature as a key spot in my writing. Like I did in Turin, I felt that my characters Haskell and Eudora were with me in Mexico City. That’s a story for another day, though.

There were the traditional gallows on display, the hangman’s noose, the good old guillotine, and the nasty blades that were used to decapitate criminals. They were all grisly, but the innovative torture devices were the ones that caused me the most malaise. A particularly nasty implement of torture was a simple wooden pyramid. It didn’t look too threatening until you read what it was used for. A person would be placed on the point of the pyramid at a particularly sensitive area depending on your gender, and then…well…gravity would take its slow and painful course. The weight of the body would press the person further and further onto the pyramid’s point until they were literally impaled and split open. Horrible.

Other nightmarish creations were the rack, where arms and legs would be stretched until they were ripped off. There was an Iron Maiden, where the person would be encapsulated in an iron sarcophagus filled with spikes. These spikes could be manipulated and the iron could be heated. You can imagine the results. There were spiked crowns and thrones that were covered in nails. There were devices to crush fingers. There were whips. There were all sorts of horrible things, and as I said, they were fascinating, but I was just shocked mainly at the lack of humanity. We are an immensely cruel species that seems to thrive on and enjoy inflicting corporeal punishment on our fellow beings.

The gift shop was absolutely lame, which might have been the biggest let down of the day. Now that I think back on it, I’m not sure what I wanted? A pencil sharpener disguised as a tiny skull crusher? An impaling pyramid Christmas bauble? I suppose it’s for the best, though a good book would have been nice to keep on hand for research purposes.

Jessica was absolutely kaput and I was ready for a rest, but we decided we should at least grab a few snacks to take back to the apartment in case that was the night we finally starved to death. It’s more likely than you might think. We are just too dainty for our own good. My obsession of the moment was fresh popcorn from a department store called Liverpool down by the Zócalo. It reminds me of the quaint little popcorn shop in Turin, so I just kept going back and back. If they had a smaller staff, I’m sure I would have been on first name terms with all of them.


Along the way, though, we saw something quite unexpected, it was that goddamn museum for the Spanish Inquisition! It had been taken completely out of its former home and reinstalled in a rather nondescript building on a run-of-the-mill street. Of course we had to go in since that had been the point entirely for the day. To access the exhibit, you have to climb up and up and up a staircase that looks like it belongs in a cheap apartment complex instead of a museum. We finally reached the level, got our tickets, and were given an audio guide in English to get a better understanding of what we were about to see.

Now, reader, you might know this about me, but I am ardent loather of audio guides in a museum. I appreciate what their intended purpose is, but I can’t stand to be shuffled through a museum from point to point to listen to a tedious lecture by an academic that goes on for far too long. I firmly believe that audio guides should never be provided for free because they absolutely clog museums. You are unable to move freely through the exhibits or spend the time you desire at the ones that interest you the most. Instead, hoards of people shuffle through, lamely, soullessly, languidly, from one display to the next. I was absolutely devastated by the audio guides at the Museo Egizio in Turin a few years ago because the audio clips were LONG and WELL DONE and DRY. Instead of peering at mummies and ushebti, the masses of people were in a long, sad line. That’s enough about audio guides. There was nobody at the museum but us so we weren’t really at the mercy of a crowd.

The displays were cheesy and almost everything was a recreation of the objects we had seen in the Museum of Torture. A key difference was the presence of mannequins. In these exhibits, wax people were posed as victims of the instruments of torture. Instead of using your imagination to gather up a hideous mental image, you just had to look at the silly and oddly hairy mannequins hanging from the gallows.

It went on for awhile and it was good macabre fun, but I admit that I left wondering again about humanity. Why do we do such cruel things to each other? Why don’t we accept differences? Why do we kill and maim? Why don’t we all just get along? I suppose we never have and we never will. It’s sad.

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