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Bizzare & Odd

Is it true that there was a secret society in England that kidnapped and mutilated children for circus performances?

Is it true that there was a secret society in England that kidnapped and mutilated children for circus performances? 1

Victor Hugo, in his 1869 novel “The Man Who Laughs,” described in some detail the secret society of comprachicos, which translates from Spanish as “buyers of children.” Basically, these people bought children from debt-ridden and impoverished parents. After this, the child completely lost his name and appearance. The Comprachicos disfigured the little man so much that no one could ever recognize him again.

Such a terrible phenomenon as the comprachicos existed in Europe for a relatively short time, just over a century, and if not for Victor Hugo with his “The Man Who Laughs,” this disgusting page of history might never have been opened.

The shameful phenomenon that appeared at the turn of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment could only exist thanks to the support of those in power and the tacit consent of the church.

The Comprachicos changed the child’s appearance with such ingenuity that its own father would not have recognized. Sometimes they left the spine intact but reshaped the face. They erased the child’s natural characteristics, like ripping off a mark from a stolen handkerchief.  Victor Hugo, The Man Who Laughs

The choice of “products” offered by the mysterious merchants of pain and despair was very wide. From gloomy guys in wide-brimmed black hats one could buy dwarfs, castrati, hunchbacks, people with huge or, on the contrary, small heads, children and adults without limbs – it was difficult to list all the types of deviations from the norm offered for hard cash.

Where did the comprachicos get their scary and unusual goods? Children in Milan, Zurich, London, Paris and Prague were frightened by scary kidnappers who snatched naughty children straight from their beds and took them to their creepy halls. In fact, the main suppliers of “raw materials” for the comprachicos were the parents themselves.

The “changed children” were subsequently sold to itinerant theaters, for circus performances for the amusement of the public, or for begging. From the description, it follows that it was quite a profitable business. Sometimes nobles also resorted to the services of comprachicos. When, for example, it was necessary for a young heir to disappear forever. In Hugo’s novel, this is what was done to the young Lord Fermen Clancharlie.

The Comprachicos used a rich arsenal of inventions. If body deformation was required, then the children were placed in a barrel or vase in which it grew in an unnatural position not exceeding the size of the vessel. Hugo mentions a rooster man at the king’s court, who, after some surgical manipulations on the larynx, made peculiar sounds. His duties included singing like a rooster at certain times of the day.

Children were made into buffoons and gymnasts. For the latter, a kind of operation was used, when the joints were cunningly twisted and afterwards it seemed that this person had no bones in his body. When the sultan needed protection for his concubines, he also turned to the comprachicos, who supplied him with boys who could no longer encroach on women. But other ‘human oddities’ were not left out either. The appearance of some of them could successfully frighten all those who were undesirable.

There were true masters of this business. They made a freak out of a normal person. The human face was turned into a mug. Growth was stopped. The child was remade. The artificial fabrication of freaks was carried out according to well-known rules. It was a whole science.  Victor Hugo, The Man Who Laughs

Gwynplaine from the 1928 film.  The closest image to the book in films based on
Gwynplaine from the 1928 movie. 

The art of “transforming” a person was allegedly described in the book of Dr. Conquest, a member of the Amenstreet College. The book outlined the basic techniques of Comprachicos surgery. The founder of this surgery was a monk named Aven-Mor, which in Irish means “Big River”.

As we see, Hugo describes this secret community in great detail. But how real was all this? After all, the novel really contains a lot of historical facts and some of them (sometimes very strange) turned out to be true. For example, the position of “opener of ocean bottles” at court actually existed in England. And a person who did not take a bottle found in the ocean with a note to the appropriate department lost his head.

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With the Comprachicos things are a little more complicated. Legends about their existence circulated throughout Spain long before Hugo wrote his novel. In his early youth, Hugo lived with his family in Spain, and from there he learned about this secret society. Other writers also mentioned them indirectly. For example, Shakespeare:

Away, dwarf, pygmy, conceived on ergot! Be gone, acorn! Be gone, bead! W. Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Gwynplaine saves Deja.  Illustration by Hippolyte Maia 1869.
Gwynplaine saves Deja. Illustration by Hippolyte Maia 1869.

Also, Saint Vincent de Paul, according to legend, saved a boy from the Comprachicos. Some similar cases are also mentioned in the criminal chronicles of Europe but no information could be found that the Comprachicos were one large, united international community. No documents, no evidence, no records. It turns out that either the Comprachicos were such a secret organization that they either did not keep any records and almost never got caught, or all that is known about them is mostly legends and fiction.

At the same time, it should not be denied that individual cases of the sale of children for performances and the barbaric change of their appearance for these purposes occurred. But most likely this was not done by a secret organization but by profit-hungry businessmen. Some of them paid for their crimes, others remained unpunished. The medieval world was cruel and often unfair yet many of the horrors of the Middle Ages have no real historical basis.

Modern comprachicos

In the modern world, it would seem that there is no place for comprachicos, but this is not so. Not all corners of the globe, not all humanity, are developing equally quickly. That is why victims of the Comprachicos can be found on the streets today – in the form of a beggar. This is especially common in third world countries, such as India.

There you can often see children and adults with the most unimaginable deformities. And not all of them are natural. Many deformities appeared due to outside intervention. Beggars or simply too greedy people cause irreparable injuries to children in order to receive alms with their help. 

In poor countries, modern comprachicos can easily be called a product of circumstance. Millions of people have neither education nor work. This means that mutilating their own children is one of their few sources of income. However, on the other, ethical side, this is a very weak justification.

And yet comprachicos also exist in more developed countries, where work and income are not so bad. Mutilated victims collect donations from temples and passages at any time of the year, and then give the money to their “masters.” And so – day after day.


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