At the end of the sixteenth century, there was an infant in France with an excess of skin on its head. The parents of the child were poor and carried their infant from town to town, putting him on display for profit. When they reached Paris, a magistrate questioned them, suspecting the pair of fraud. The parents rolled, telling a tale even worse than the public had suspected.
Fabricus Hildanus, father of German surgery, describes their confession: "They had cut the skin of the infant's head by making a little hole about the crown to the very muscles and by that very hold (putting in a reed between the skin and the muscles) had blown into it, and by degrees, within some months (by continually puffing into it) the skin of the infant's head was extended to that altitude and that they did expose it to all here and about France to get money thereby."
As punishment, the parents were put to death.
Maiming and manipulating children for profit is an old profession. And in an age when medicine was often more guesswork than scientific process, the line between the monsters that were born and the monsters that were created was often very thin. Many modern researchers have a hard time separating the facts from the fantasies.
For example, dwarfing children through malnourishment in order to put them on display was so common that, in her history of dwarfism, Dr. Betty Adelson dismisses some ancient tales of dwarves out of hand. This practice was as old as ancient Rome—where there's a record of owners intentionally malnourishing a slave child in order to sell him as a dwarf for a higher price.
Of course, that's not the only way of hurting a child for money. In London, in the 1720s, a child with "Jehovah Elohim" written on his eyes was displayed and heralded as the Messiah—until someone revealed that his parents had put small pieces of engraved glass over his eyes. 16th century physician Ambrose Pare writes in On Monsters and Marvels that some counterfeiters have taken children and "broken their legs, poked out their eyes, cut off their tongues, pressed upon and carved their chests saying lightening bruised them thus…"
This is not—and was never—good parenting. Parents are supposed to give their bodies to their children, not use their children's bodies for profit. This ideal is especially true for women, and is so powerful that the Brothers Grimm edited bad mothers out of their stories. For example, in Jack Zipes' translation of the first edition of the Grimm's work, Hansel and Gretel are sent off to die by their own mother, not an unfeeling stepmother. But the Grimm brothers changed this. Their nervous editing seems to beg the question: no real mother would knowingly be cruel to her children, would she? No "real mother" would ever harm her child.
Along with the parents who deformed their children for profit, there were the parents who would use their children's existing deformities and use their own personal gain. In 1829, a pair of conjoined twins named Ritta-Cristina were put on display in Paris. The girls were only six or seven months old. They had been born to poor parents in Sardinia, who had eight other children. Perhaps encouraged by the doctors or impressed with the fanfare surrounding their daughters, the parents decided to take their babies on tour. But, in Paris, the authorities thought showing the girls off was vulgar. So they shut the show down.
Destitute and desperate, Ritta-Christina's parents started showing their daughters in a run-down house. They couldn't afford coal or firewood and Ritta developed bronchitis. While Ritta coughed and struggled to breathe, her sister, joined to her from the rib cage down, laughed and played. The parents were penniless, and Ritta died three days after she became ill. At the moment that Ritta breathed her last, Christina, who had been playing with her mother's hand, cried out and followed her sister into death.
In the wake of the twin's death there was a scrum in the newspapers over who was to blame for their death. Should the magistrates have allowed the show, allowed the parents to make better money? How could their parents put them on display like that?
Another pair of nineteenth-century conjoined twins—Giovanni Baptista and Giacomo Tocci—were also exploited by their parents, who made them the family breadwinners. These twins stayed healthy, and as a result, their parents became very wealthy—and the sons, after spending so much time on display, never developed the muscles necessary for them to walk. Before he was 12, Giovanni Baptista became an alcoholic; ironically, Giacomo was a teetotaler. This was possible because the Tocci brothers were almost two completely separate people: although joined at the chest, doctors speculate that they only shared the large and small intestine, anus, and penis. But it's hard to know, since their parents didn't allow many medical examinations. They didn't want doctors tampering with their meal ticket. By the time the boys were 20 and of legal standing, they fled their parents and the spotlight.
This commodification of children has continued all the way up to Mama June and Kris Jenner. In these cases, the bottom line is money, we assume. The greatest and perhaps only exculpation for some of these mothers is that they faced harsh economic conditions.
But perhaps it's just natural: even in the animal kingdom, mothers are cruel. A recent episode of This American Life told the story of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute osprey cam, where, recently, viewers watched a female osprey terrorize her children like some sort of cruel bird reality show.
To say it's natural is not, of course, to say that it's good. I think of that unnamed mother putting a reed into her baby's head, night after night. She knew. Whatever else was forcing her hand, she knew exactly what she was doing. These stories, pulled out from these medical histories, show mothers in a light that fascinates us and repels us: They show that mothers can be tremendously cruel.
Anyone who has a mother might know this already—and also might understand why the Grimms felt they had to edit all the mother evil out. For so many, being a mother is the pinnacle of existence, a transformative experience of love. We want to believe it is like this, and will be like this—for us, and for everyone else too.
But the only thing really uniting mothers is that they're humans, who got a little fatter, who had a baby. In When She Was Bad, Patricia Pearson points out that all of the research behind maternal bonding generally ignores the fact that it doesn't really matter who infants bond with, as long as they bond. She writes, "Ideas about instinctual maternal attachment also come from studies of infant bonding needs, which actually show that the identity of the primary caretaker is irrelevant to the infant, so long as care is consistent and empathetic...What's going on here is that science is reinforcing the transcendent sentiment of the mother-child bond."
Even science is in on it. But as Pearson later adds, "Idealizing women into a tender-hearted class of perfect mothers does not lead them to behave that way." And I wonder how much of my fascination and horror about these stories of maternal exploitation is based on that old myth, the fairy tale, about the sanctity and purity of motherhood. I wonder what good that's ever done any mother, really. After all, what good is a pedestal? It's just a harder fall.
Lyz Lenz has written for The Hairpin, The Toast, The New York Time Motherlode, and other various and sundry internet entities. Find her on twitter @lyzl.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.