Comprachicos is a compound Spanish neologism meaning ‘child-buyers,’ which was coined by Victor Hugo in his novel ‘The Man Who Laughs’ (1869). It refers to various groups in folklore who were said to change the physical appearance of human beings by manipulating growing children, in a similar way to the horticultural method of bonsai – that is, deliberate mutilation.

The most common methods said to be used in this practice included stunting children’s growth by physical restraint, muzzling their faces to deform them, slitting their eyes, dislocating their joints, and malforming their bones. The resulting human monsters made their living as mountebanks (con artists and hustlers) or were sold to lords and ladies to be used as pages or court jester.

‘The Man Who Laughs’ is the story of a young aristocrat kidnapped and disfigured by his captors to display a permanent malicious grin. At the opening of the book, Hugo provides a description of the Comprachicos: ‘The Comprachicos worked on man as the Chinese work on trees. A sort of fantastic stunted thing left their hands; it was ridiculous and wonderful. They could touch up a little being with such skill that its father could not have recognized it. Sometimes they left the spine straight and remade the face. Children destined for tumblers had their joints dislocated in a masterly manner; thus gymnasts were made. Not only did the Comprachicos take away his face from the child; they also took away his memory. At least, they took away all they could of it; the child had no consciousness of the mutilation to which he had been subjected. Of burnings by sulphur and incisions by the iron he remembered nothing. The Comprachicos deadened the little patient by means of a stupefying powder which was thought to be magical and which suppressed all pain.’

According to research by John Boynton Kaiser in the Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, ‘Victor Hugo has given us a pretty faithful picture of many characteristic details of social England of the 17th century; but the word Comprachicos is used to describe a people whose characteristics are an unhistorical conglomeration of much that was once actual but then obsolete in the history of human society.’ Much that seems unimaginable today may have authentic roots in common practices of the seventeenth century.

One of the common creations of the Comprachicos was supposed to be artificial dwarfs, formed ‘by anointing babies’ spines with the grease of bats, moles and dormice’ and using drugs such as ‘dwarf elder, knotgrass, and daisy juice.’ The conception was known to Shakespeare, as Beatrice K. Otto pointed out, quoting ‘A Midsummer’s Night Dream’: Get you gone, dwarf; You minimus, of hindering knot-grass made;’ Other means of creating this result were conjectured to include physical stunting by breaking or dislocating bones, and forcible constrainment, whereby growth was inhibited for a long enough period to create permanent deformation. Because of the demand for dwarfs and other novelties in the courts of kings at this time, this could have been a profitable occupation.

The term comprachico is very uncommonly used in modern English except in reference or allusion to the antiquated folklore, but similar stories do exist in the English speaking world. For instance, a tale circulating since at least the 1980s tells of a Japanese bride who disappears during her honeymoon in Europe; years later her husband discovers she has been abducted, mutilated, and forced to work in a freak show.

‘Comprachico’ has been adopted as pejorative term used for individuals and entities who manipulate the minds and attitudes of children in a way that will permanently distort their beliefs or worldview. Twentieth century philosopher Ayn Rand referred to educators of the time as ‘the Comprachicos of the mind’ in her article ‘The Comprachicos.’ Her criticism was targeted especially toward educational progressivists, but also grade-school and high-school educators.


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