Time passed and the cholera epidemic was mostly forgotten. In the 1870s the local government imposed a tax on anyone that wanted to continue perpetual care for the graves of their relatives buried so long ago.
Any bodies for which the tax was not paid were disinterred and stored in a warehouse.
Once disinterred, the townspeople were shocked to see that the bodies were remarkably well-preserved. In fact, they had been mummified. Scientist determined that the unique soil composition, arid, low-humidity weather and the 6000 feet above sea level elevation of Guanajuato kept the bodies from decomposing.
The local population was fascinated with these mummies of Guanajuato and began sneaking into the warehouse to peek at them. Word spread and tourists began to arrive paying a few pesos to the local caretakers to allow them to see the mummies.
Finally, the trickle of tourists turned into a stream and local authorities established a formal museum with admission fees that would generate income for the town. That’s how the Museum of the Mummies of Guanajuato came to exist.
For decades the mummies were propped against the walls held up by ropes. Visitors could get as close as they wanted. Some tourists detached mummy parts as souvenirs.
Fearing the destruction of a major tourist draw the local government remodeled the museum placing the mummies behind temperature controlled glass showcases. That’s where I first saw them.
The museum has its mummy celebrities. Foremost among these is Dr. Remijio Leroy. As a French immigrant with no family to pay the perpetual grave maintenance taxes, he was the first to be disinterred.
The good doctor was a prominent citizen and as such was buried in a formal, elegant suit of clothing much of which was surprisingly well preserved.
Also on display is what the museum claims is the smallest mummy in the world, a fetus buried next to his mother that died of cholera. It is a sad exhibit.
Sadder still is the legend of Ignacia Aguilar. Ignacia had a heart condition which caused her heart to slow to the point that she appeared dead. During one of her spells, her family believed she had died.
In the rush to contain cholera, they buried her. When she was disinterred she was found turned over in the coffin, as if trying to push it open with her back. Her arms were lifted above her head. She appeared to have bitten her arm and blood was found in her mouth.
I have decided to believe this story is only a scary legend created to drum up business. The alternative is just too appalling to contemplate.
You can’t help imagining what the cholera epidemic was like in that small colonial town in 1833. What terror the people must have felt as their neighbors succumbed one by one. Am I next?, they must have thought.
What precautions did they take with no medical knowledge? They must have clung desperately to the superstitions of the day.
The perpetual maintenance tax was eliminated in 1958 but the mummy exhibit and the images of the screaming corpses endured. Today there are about 120 mummies, 59 of which are on display.
To this day the mummies of Guanajuato continue to be a major tourist draw for the town, especially during Halloween and All Souls Day. The town even sells Guanajuato Mummy candy, different flavored candies in the shape of little mummies (I’m not making this up).
Guanajuato has really found innovative ways to promote its Guanajuato Mummies Museum.
The mummy museum of Guanajuato, Mexico is open from 9 to 6 every day. A taxi will cost you about US$5 from the town center to the museum. Buses also leave from the town center going directly to the museum. Take the bus with the “Las Momias” sign (The Mummies).