Ninety-nine years ago, two Santa Feans, the Mayanist Sylvanus G. Morley and the archaeologist and photographer Jesse L. Nusbaum, visited the island of Cozumel and the ancient Maya ruins of Tulum, on the eastern shore of the Yucatán peninsula. Their visit would have been recorded only in the annals of science and Maya studies if it were not for its extraordinary circumstances and a series of sensational newspaper articles published about the expedition. On April 15, 1913, The Santa Fe New Mexican published a front-page article, "Two Santa Feans Visit Bad Men on Cozumel Isle, " which mentioned that the island was noted for its cannibals. Two days later, another front-page article appeared, with the headline: "Grave Danger in Visiting Isle of Cozumel. Peril of Morley-Nusbaum-Lis Expedition Facing Cannibals Who Have Eaten Other Explorers. Mrs. Morley Alarmed over Husband's Fate." There was a photo of Nusbaum, with a caption suggesting he may have met his end at the hands of cannibals. The story quickly went national, and the Boston Globe published an article on April 18, with the ominous headline: "Alarm Felt for Them. S. G. Morley, a Harvard Student, and J. H. Nusbaum May Have Died on Visit to Cozumel Island." The account mentioned that Morley's wife, Alice, was prostrate with concern for the men, since there were reports that two Englishmen who visited the island of Cozumel recently were eaten by cannibals or killed by hostile Indians.
In the early 20th century, the eastern half of the Yucatán Peninsula, including the modern-day resort destinations of Cozumel and Tulum, was a rough territory inhabited by Yucatec Maya sublevados, the descendants of people who revolted against Mexican national control in 1847. The so-called Caste War erupted in that year, when the Maya staged a violent insurrection against the residents of the regional capital, Mérida, and other population centers such as Valladolid. As Nelson Reed notes in The Caste War of Yucatán (1964), the conflict resulted from increased taxes on native peoples as well as a land grab. Maya villages held lands communally, and in the early decades of the 19th century, Mexican (i.e. non-Maya) ranchers and businessmen began to encroach upon native lands, which they developed into haciendas for cattle and henequen fiber. The Maya armies quickly occupied most of the peninsula, except for the walled cities of Mérida and Campeche. But within a year, the Mexican forces began to push the Maya back, and eventually a stalemate developed. The sublevados — or Cruzoob, the "People of the Cross, " as they called themselves — held much of the eastern peninsula, encompassing sections of the modern states of Yucatán, Quintana Roo, and Campeche. No roads connected the Cruzoob heartland, with its capital at Chan Santa Cruz, with the rest of Mexico, and it was rumored that any non-Maya who entered their territory would be slain. Mexicans may well have been killed if they entered Cruzoob lands, but foreigners were usually safe, since the sublevados were buying arms from the British colony in what is now Belize.
Rumors that the Cruzoob were cannibals likely stem from the racist attitudes of the Mexicans in Mérida such as Gov. Miguel Barbachano, who, beginning in 1849, sold any Mayas his forces caught into slavery in Cuba. Reed uncovered evidence that the Maya mutilated and barbecued captured Mexicans and left them to be discovered, in an effective strategy to play on fears of cannibalism. Historians usually date the conclusion of the Caste War at 1900, but both Mexicans and foreigners feared travel to the eastern Yucatán peninsula well into the 20th century. We should note that native peoples throughout the Americas were accused by the invading Europeans of practicing cannibalism. Although some indigenous American peoples undoubtedly practiced cannibalism, just as was true among other world populations, many of these accusations can now be more profitably assessed as strategies to dehumanize native peoples so that they might be enslaved or their lands taken, rather than faithful descriptions of cultural practices.
Sylvanus G. Morley and Jesse L. Nusbaum (the Boston Globe printed his middle initial incorrectly) were in Yucatán to make a silent feature film on the ancient Maya for the Panama-California Exposition, to be held in San Diego in 1915. Morley wrote the script, which tells the story of the rulers of the ancient city of Chichén Itzá and includes such sensational scenes as a sacrifice of virgins in the sacred cenote at the site — a sinkhole more than 100 feet across, and 80 feet down to the water. Morley and Nusbaum arrived in Yucatán in January 1913 and quickly found that not only did they not have enough money to have the sets made or buy the costumes (including quetzal feathers, jaguar-pelt skirts, and jade beads), but when the Mexican Revolution turned bloody, in early February, much of the population around Chichén, both Mexican and Maya, evacuated — the former to Mérida and the latter deeper into the jungle beyond the ruins. Morley related these woes in letters to his supervisor, Edgar Lee Hewett, the director of archaeological and ethnological exhibits for the fair, which are preserved in the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe. In the end, Morley and Nusbaum made what must be the first films of the ancient Maya ruins of Yucatán, as well as scenes from the Carnival parades in Mérida and a documentation of henequen-fiber processing, from the cutting of the stalks to the finished cordage. Unfortunately, the films do not survive, or perhaps they are buried in an archive somewhere.
On March 12, Morley wrote to Hewett that he and Nusbaum hoped to visit Cozumel Island and the ruins of Tulum. He said he had met in Mérida one Gen. Eguía Lis, who was conducting peace negotiations with the sublevados. The general had an avocational interest in archaeology and invited Morley and Nusbaum to accompany him to Cozumel, from which they might find passage to Tulum, which could be visited only from the sea or by air until the mid-20th century. Morley thought that if he could film the peace negotiations between Lis and the chief of the sublevado Maya, the resulting film might be sold at a profit for a newsreel. Morley was also itching to visit Tulum because he wanted to check the date on a monument written in Maya hieroglyphic script that had been reported by an earlier explorer. In the end, the general was unable to make the trip, and Morley's expense account, also housed at the History Library in Santa Fe, records that they set out from Progreso, the port of Mérida, on April 4, aboard a Mexican navy gunboat, which made the trip to the eastern shore of the peninsula every fortnight. Morley described the ship to Hewett: "On the filth of that unspeakable transporte, I will not dwell, suffice it to say that it was the foulest ship I ever saw."
A day later, they arrived at Cozumel, where they found no cannibals. Instead, Nusbaum made some photographic views of the beach and the ruins of the church of San Miguel. At Cozumel they hired a sailboat to take them to Tulum, but the Mexican army commander refused permission for them to travel there, insisting that they would be killed. Eventually, he did allow them to travel to Chacalal, on the coast about four leagues north of Tulum. Of course, they made directly for Tulum. The journey from Cozumel to Tulum, which today takes just over an hour, on the sailboat took 32 hours, 28 of which in were in very rough seas. When they arrived at Tulum, the coastal reef prevented them from anchoring closer than 200 yards from shore, and about a half-mile south of the ruins, which are perched on a bluff above and clearly visible from the sea. Morley and Nusbaum piled into a canoe with all their gear, accompanied by the sailors and five bravos, or fierce men, armed with rifles, though in this case their courage may have come from the fact that they were drunk, as the archaeologists reported.
The canoe immediately began to fill with water, as waves washed over the gunwales. Crossing the surf in any kind of boat is difficult. Just before they landed on terra firma, a six-foot wave capsized the canoe, drenching everyone and everything aboard. The guns carried by the bravos to protect them from the much-feared cannibal sublevados were rendered inoperable. But more importantly for our story, the 5 x 7 glass photographic plates and plate holders Nusbaum packed were also ruined. His camera was saved only because Nusbaum was very tall and the water where they capsized was just four feet deep. Nusbaum sent the sailors back to the sailboat to retrieve the few dry plates he had left onboard. After walking up the shore to the ruins, Morley and Nusbaum made a reconnaissance, making a few photographs and searching unsuccessfully for the monument with the date.
The Nusbaum Collection at the New Mexico Palace of the Governors Photo Archives has just seven glass-plate negatives from Tulum, half of them badly damaged. From their accounts, Morley and Nusbaum, and especially the bravos, were clearly worried about what might happen to them if the local Maya appeared, and they departed after a few hours. They recorded their versions of the Cozumel-Tulum expedition in letters to Hewett, which survive in the Hewett Papers (preserved in the Chávez library) and which were later published (in part) in Ancient Life in Mexico and Central America (1936), and in Tierra Dulce: Reminiscences from the Jesse Nusbaum Papers (1980), edited by Rosemary Nusbaum, the archaeologist's second wife.
Morley and Nusbaum returned to Mérida after 10 days and made a few more films before preparing to return to the United States at the end of April. The day after they returned, The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that they might have been eaten by cannibals (the "Bad Men" of the headline), and The Boston Globe published a similar story three days later. Evidently someone, presumably Morley's wife Alice, was able to get a telegraph message to him, since the papers soon reported that the cannibals did not make a meal of the men, whom The New Mexican reported (on April 15, 1913) did not have an excess of adipose tissue (i.e., fat) the last time they were seen in Santa Fe. The Boston Globe ran a second article on April 19, with the headline: "Cannibals Balked." These articles caused much trouble for Morley and Nusbaum, because they upset John Collier, the director of the Panama-California Exposition, who was Hewett's boss. Collier and Hewett wanted all information about the Yucatán expedition to be released by the exposition's press office. The leak was soon traced to Nusbaum, who wrote his friend Abe Spiegelberg in Santa Fe about the Cozumel-Tulum expedition shortly before they left and expressed his misgivings about the journey.
Nusbaum wrote to Hewett that, somehow, one Brian Boru learned the news and wrote the New Mexican articles about the cannibals. Brian Boru was B.B. Dunne, who for decades wrote a gossip column for The New Mexican and was known for sensationalistic journalism. Dunne also filed a report with the Associated Press, which was the basis for Paul Stanwood's articles in The Boston Globe. Stanwood knew everyone on the Santa Fe side of this story, since he had gone on an archaeological dig in the Southwest a few years earlier. When Nusbaum learned that Stanwood had written the Boston Globe article, he reminded Hewett (in a letter of May 13), that Stanwood was "one of the Harvard fellows whom I particularly disliked because of his thoroughly Harvard characteristics, which were so plainly displayed at the Cannonball excavations [in 1908]."
Years later, when Morley was director of the Carnegie Institution of Washington Maya archaeology program, he had many friendly meetings with the so-called cannibal chiefs of the Tulum region, as related in Paul Sullivan's Unfinished Conversations: Mayas and Foreigners Between Two Wars (1989). The Cruzoob Maya chiefs visited him at the project headquarters at Chichén Itzá many times during the 1920s and 1930s, visits which disproved the earlier hysteria about anthropophagy in Yucatán. ◀