Birth Monstrosities and National Positioning

Nora E. Jaffary, Concordia University

When my teenage son was in the fifth grade, I volunteered to do a presentation for his classroom on a topic I imagined would intrigue his peers: monsters! Before I began, I admired the students’ monster artwork hanging outside the classroom: enormous, tusked sea creatures, ghoulish aliens, muscly multi-armed supervillains. Monsters have long terrified us because of their strangeness, but as monsters’ originators—from Mary Shelly to the Duffer brothers—know, they also frighten us because of our secret fear that rather than being separate and alien, monsters really are us, and we, them. “Am I the monster?” the heroine of Stranger Things repeatedly seeks to know.

I chose the images to present to my son’s classroom carefully, since most of those I planned to discuss did not represent sea monsters or space creatures, but rather were drawings of birth anomalies that seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century populations often called monsters. One large collection of such images was gathered in a museum guide, the Catálogo de las anomalías coleccionadas en el Museo Nacional (1896), fully viewable here: The Catálogo is an unsettling historical source from which to work (and coming from a historian who has lined her nest for the past couple of decades with the study of infanticide trials, this is saying something!). This guidebook features drawings and descriptions of fifty-seven anomalous birth specimens that Mexico’s National Museum collected and proudly displayed in an inaugural “salon” one year earlier. The majority of the drawings depict abnormally formed animals—two-headed dogs (,

double-bodied pigs (, calves that had grown extra limbs ( —but a number of the specimens included human forms – a fetus that lacked a skull, one whose internal organs were not enclosed in skin (, a hermaphrodite, and a man whose limbs were unnaturally bent and twisted (

Although the catalogue was produced at a time when anatomical museums the world over were generating such collections, I was struck by the incongruity between my own initial visceral reaction to the images in the catalogue (which I confess were disgust mixed with a kind of voyeuristic fascination) and the late nineteenth-century attitudes informing the museum’s curators. Rather than considering the images with revulsion or shame, the staff of the country’s foremost National Museum chose to feature the collection in a salon completed and inaugurated at the time Mexico hosted the first international meeting of the prominent academic society, the Congreso de Americanistas, on the occasion of its first meeting on the western side of the Atlantic. The article that I produced, “The Monstrous Nation: The 1895 Salon de Anomalías in Mexico’s National Museum,” is my effort to account for the curators’ decisions within the historical context of their time.

One characteristic element of the text the Museum’s curators produced reflected late nineteenth-century attitudes toward birth anomalies, a view perhaps shared by visitors of the exhibit: a lingering attitude of wonder toward these specimens, such as that described by Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park in their insightful book, Wonders and the Order of Nature 1150-1750 (Princeton University Press, 1998).  Such attitudes predated later impulses typical of the twentieth century to surgically correct those born with birth anomalies, as Alice Domurat Dreger describes in One of Us: Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal (Harvard, 2005). In 1931, when the Federal District (Mexico City) revised its Penal Code, first published in 1871, the Code’s creators addressed the issue of congenital birth defects in their discussion of the crime of abortion and its regulation. Article 334 of the 1931 code decreed that “Abortions should not be sanctioned in cases in which, if the abortion did not occur, the pregnant woman or the product of conception ran the risk of death.” This clause, subsequently referred to as the “eugenic clause” was later implemented by various other state legislatures when they adopted the Federal District’s 1931 Code.[1] The state of Sonora, in its 1940 Penal Code, declared for instance that women convicted of abortion should be sentenced from between two and eight years’ imprisonment, but that several exceptions might be made to penalization, including if “the expulsion of the fetus was undertaken for desired eugenic purposes.”[2] After the mid-1950s, even though there was greater opposition to abortion amongst Mexico’s medical profession than there had been in earlier decades, many Mexican states included such language in regulations treating abortion; its practice was often not penalized in the presence of serious congenital abnormalities in fetuses. 

The late nineteenth-century museum guide and the salon of birth anomalies that it catalogued illustrate a different set of attitudes to such phenomena. The first fifteen pages of the Catálogo presenting the scientific foundations of contemporary understanding of birth malformations were drawn from the early nineteenth-century naturalist Geoffrey de Saint-Hilaire. “Anomalies or monstrosities,” the Cátalogo’s introduction declared, should be understood not as entities distinctive from the spectrum of natural creation, but as “exaggerated varieties” of beings on the spectrum of biological variation.[3] (If such men had had to answer the aforementioned Eleven’s question, “Am I the monster?” they might have replied in the affirmative.) This very different perspective on birth “monstrosities” provides a first access point into understanding why and how the directors of the National Museum could proudly display these specimens of Mexican monstrosities; they demonstrated, in a different manner but from within the same mindset, as did the indigenous monoliths that became the centerpiece of the Museum’s collection, evidence of the Mexican nation’s triumphant national evolution. 

[1] Secretaria de Gobernacíon, Código penal para el distrito y territorios federales en material de fuero común, y para toda la republica en material de fuero federal (México: Talleres gráficos de la nación, 1931), 71.

[2] “Código Penal para el Estado de Sonora,” Periódico Oficial del Estado de Sonora (16 de noviembre de 1940), Capítulo IV, Artículo 204, 55.

[3] Román Ramírez, Catálogo de las anomalías coleccionadas en el Museo Nacional (México: Imprenta del Museo Nacional, 1896), v.