Mexico, as it was and as it is/Letter 23

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Mexico, as it was and as it is  (1847)  by Brantz Mayer
LETTER XXIII.

LETTER XXIII.


THE NEIGHBORHOOD OF MEXICO. CHAPULTEPEC. TACUBAYA, AND THE MURDER OF MR. EGERTON. ST. ANGEL. THE DESIERTO.


I have intimated to you several times in these letters, that it is exceedingly dangerous to go out of the gates of the city of Mexico alone or unarmed. Indeed, a foreigner scarcely ever rides even as far as Tacubaya without his pistols in his holsters and a trusty servant behind him.

Skirting one of the aqueducts which terminates in the southern part of the city, you pass westward over the plain to Chapultepec—the "Hill of the Grasshopper." It is an insulated porphyritic rock, rising near the former margin of the lake, and is said to have been one of the spots designated by the Aztecs, as a place where they tarried on their emigration from the north in search of a final resting-place, which was to be denoted by "an eagle sitting on a rock and devouring a serpent."

At the foot of this solitary hill the plain spreads out on every side, in all the beauty of extreme cultivation, while a belt of noble cypresses girdle its immediate base. One of these trees still bears the name of "Montezuma's cypress,"[1] and there is no doubt, from the remains of the gardens, groves, tanks and grottoes still visible about this beautiful area, that it was one of the favorite resorts of the monarch and court of the Mexican Empire. The tradition is that the Emperor retired from the sultry city to these pleasant shades, which were filled, in his day, with every luxury that wealth could procure or art devise. It would have been difficult to select a spot better adapted for a royal residence. From the top of the modern Palace (now a military school) erected by the Viceroy Galvez, there is a charming prospect over the valley and lakes. You sweep your eye around a border of gigantic mountains, while at the bottom of the hill cluster the dense groves of cypress—the genuine antiquities of Mexico—old, perhaps already at the period of the conquest. Nor is it the least agreeable association with these venerable relics, that they are unconnected with any of the bloody rites of religion, but are eloquent witnesses of the better portions of Mexican character.

click on this image to enlarge it.

Chapultepec

By a road leading south-westwardly from Chapultepec, at the distance of about a mile, you reach Tacubaya, a town somewhat celebrated in the history of Spanish diplomacy. It is a quiet country village, containing many delightful residences of the Mexican merchants, and is chiefly remarkable for a palace of the Archbishop surrounded by beautiful gardens and groves, from the azotéa of which there is one of the finest views of the volcano of Popocatepetl and the neighboring mountain of Iztaccihuatl.

On the 28th of April, 1842, the city of Mexico was thrown into commotion by the recital of a dreadful double murder that had been committed on the previous night in this village.

Mr. Egerton was an English artist—a landscape painter of great eminence—who had resided several years in the Republic, and had just returned again to the country from a visit to England, bringing with him a lovely young woman as his wife. After residing a few months in town, he rented a small establishment at Tacubaya, to which he repaired with his lady, and during the period that he remained there, but seldom visited the Capital. Yet he sometimes came in to see his brother, and on the evening of the day preceding the fatal event, he left the city on his return home.

As soon as he reached Tacubaya, he went out accompanied by his wife, to take their usual evening walk; and this is the last that is known of them with any certainty. In the course of the night, the little dog that usually followed them in their rambles returned to the house alone.

On the morning of the 28th, some péons, who were going from the village to work in the fields, discovered Mr. Egerton's body lying on the road. The spot was soon thronged by the villagers, and, after a thorough search in the neighborhood, the body of his wife was found in an adjoining field of aloes.

Those who saw the shocking sight, describe it as the most horrible they ever beheld. Egerton had evidently been slain, after a severe struggle; a rattan, which he still held firmly in the grasp of death, was cut and broken; his body was pierced with eleven wounds, and, though he had been dead near eight hours when discovered, his teeth were still clenched as if in anger, his eyes wide open, and his hair stiff on end! The poor lady was stripped naked, with the exception of her stockings and shoes; one wound, as if with a small-sword, penetrated her right breast; marks of strangulation were around her throat; her stomach was bitten, and she had evidently been violated.

It is impossible to describe the horror with which all classes in Mexico received this dreadful tale. The British Minister and Consul, and Mr. Egerton's brother, immediately instituted the most diligent search for the perpetrators of these crimes; but, although several men were arrested, the monsters remain to this day undetected.

A small wooden cross, near a tangled thicket, adjoining a ruined church, marks the fatal spot, and bears an inscription imploring your prayers for the murdered pair.

* * * * * *

In a nook at the northwest comer of the city of Mexico, as you pass out of the gate of St. Cosmé, is the English Burying-ground, bowered among trees and flowers toward the town, and open, with a sweet lowland prospect, toward the setting sun; and here were deposited, side by side, the unfortunate victims. Few spectacles have ever been more sorrowful, than the group of "strangers in a strange land," who gathered around the grave of their murdered friends on the melancholy evening of their interment.

* * * * * *

At the distance of a few feet from them, repose the remains of William McClure, a countryman, dear to American science. The Academy of Natural Sciences at Philadelphia, of which he was so long the President and benefactor, erected a small marble monument over his grave, and surrounded it with an iron rail. A short time before I left Mexico, the rail was torn down, the monument upset, and, on the same night, the newly buried body of a Scotchman was disinterred, stripped of its clothes, and thrown over the wall of the cemetery!

* * * * * *


ST. AUGUSTIN—ST. ANGEL—EL DESIERTO.

St. Augustin is another village of which I have already spoken; and St. Angel is one of nearly the same character, except that the views from its azotéas over the valley and city, are perhaps more beautiful.

The pleasantest ride, however, about the vale or its adjoining mountains, is to the ruins known as "El Desierto," or the Desert; the remains of an abandoned Carmelite convent, built among the rocky recesses of the western Sierra.

It is a fashionable ride of about seven leagues, and parties of gentlemen, and even ladies, make it a resort for agreeable pic-nics. The edifices were built between two hills, and are now going rapidly to decay, yet there are some remains of cells which still retain their coverings, while the main buildings are unroofed and almost choked with luxuriant trees and flowering shrubbery.

Thomas Gage, a converted monk who visited Mexico about the end of the first century after the conquest, gave an account of this convent in 1677, when it was in its days of glory.

"The pleasantest place," says he, "of all that are about Mexico, is called La Soledad, and by others El Desierto—the Solitary, or Desert place. Were all wildernesses like it, to live in a wilderness would be better than to live in a city! This hath been a device of poor Fryers named discalced, or barefooted Carmelites, who, to make show of their apparent godliness, and that while they may be thought to live like Eremites, retired from the world, they may draw the world unto them, they have built there a stately cloister, which being upon a hill and among rocks makes it more to be admired. About the cloister they have fashioned out many holes and caves, in, under, and among the rocks, like Eremites' lodgings, with a room to lie in, and an oratory to pray in, with pictures and images, and rare devices for mortifications, as disciplines of wire, rods of iron, hair cloths, girdles with sharp wire points to girdle about their bare flesh, and many such like toys which hang about their oratories, to make people admire their mortified and holy lives.

"All the eremitical holes and caves (which are some ten in all) are within the bounds and compass of the cloister and among gardens and orchards full of fruits and flowers, which may take up two miles' compass; and here among the rocks are many springs of water, which, with the shade of the plantains and other trees, are most cool and pleasant to the Eremites; they have, also, the sweet smell of the rose and jasmine, which is a little flower, but the sweetest of all others; there is not any other flower to be found that is rare and exquisite in that country which is not in that wilderness, to delight the senses of those mortified Eremites!

"They are weekly changed from the cloister; and when the week is ended, others are sent, and they return unto their cloister; they carry with them their bottles of wine, sweetmeats, and other provision; as for fruits, the trees about to drop them into their mouths.

"It is wonderful to see the strange devices of fountains of water which are about the gardens; but much more wonderful to see the resort of coaches, and gallants, and ladies, and citizens from Mexico thither, to walk and make merry in those desert pleasures, and to see those hypocrites whom they look upon as living saints, and to think nothing too good for them to cherish them in their desert conflicts with Satan. No one goes to them but carries some sweetmeats or other dainty dish, to nourish and feed them withal; whose prayers they likewise earnestly solicit, leaving them great alms of money for their masses; and above all, offering to a picture in their church, called "Our Lady Of Carmel," treasures of diamonds, pearls, golden chains, and crowns, and gowns of cloth of gold and silver.

"Before this picture did hang, in my time, twenty lamps of silver; the worst of them being worth a hundred pounds."

Of all these cool retreats—these quiet haunts for monkish mortification—the abodes, at once, of humility and pride—nothing now remains but heaps of ruins, marking the former cloisters and hermitages. But time has been unable to destroy the magnificent prospect that bursts upon the traveller as he emerges from between the hills where the buildings are nestled. You stand nearly a thousand feet above the valley, and, in the pure and rarefied air of the mountains, the vision is almost unlimited over a world-like panorama of crag, lake, city, vale, and volcano. I have already described the view from the opposite point of the mountains, as you approach Mexico from the east, and I shall therefore not detain you with what could at best but amount to an amplified catalogue of picturesque features in the most charming landscape of the world.


  1. It measures 41 feet in circumference, and 51, in some excrescences.