Not male enough for nefarious crimes: an hermaphrodite in Guatemala (1803)

You thought Spain was a an unlikely place to look for Enlightenement discourse on hermaphrodites? Then think Guatemala. Or, read the posts on Spain first, and then the article on Mexico Enrique brought to my attention, and then think Guatemala again. Indeed, this article has reminded me of another case of hermaphroditism in the Spanish Americas, namely in Guatemala in 1803.

It is documented in two successive issues of the Gazeta de Guatemala of that year. The case was discussed by Martha Few (Few 2007). She apparently knew the source via excerpts found in Las ciencias médicas en Guatemala by Carlos Martínez Durán, and based her welcome (partial) translation on it. Unfortunately, she did not provide the Spanish original text, and I have no access to the monograph she was using, nor to the journal itself.

A familiar problem, isn’t – when you need them, you can’t find your copies of the 1803 issues of Gazeta de Guatemala. You may not even be suscribed, ordering pre-1850 back issues is difficult, and in your local library the July issues are always taken? Of course, there is always Amazon (, but a) not everyone likes Amazon’s policies, and b) there are no customer reviews for this item – very suspicious! But, lo and behold, is your friend – so here we go:


GazetadeGuatemala_1803.pdf (from

The case against Juana Aguilar

I present a few excerpts, but first a bit of background. Juana Aguilar, or Juana la Larga, was a woman from Guatemala who was accused of sodomy after having had sexual relations with both men and women. In 1803, she was tried, and in the context of this trial she was inspected, apparently because there were doubt which sex she belonged to. Or perhaps Juana raised the issue herself, as had Elena/Eleno de Cespedes done in 1585? It emerges from the report that a midwife and a surgeon were called, and found Juana to be an hermaphrodite. At this stage, it seems, the famous surgeon Narciso Esparragosa y Gallardo (1759-1819) was called to give a second opinion, a report which he soon later turned into the series of three articles in the Gazeta de Guatemala.

He argued that Juana was neither man nor women and therefore could not be guilty of sodomy – a crime for which (according to Esparragosa) one had to belong to either sex:

[…] even if one concedes that in the act of coitus it was possible for it [the clitoris] to acquire some kind of erection, that pleasure would be little more than that which obscene friction would provide, that one is aware of between women, but [such an act] lacks the seminal pollution.

Y aun concediendole que eo el acto del coito adquiriese quanta ereccion fuese posible, no pasaría aquel deleyte mucho mas allà de lo que proporcionaría la obscena confricacion que se suele acostumbrar entre dos mugeres, pues le falta la polucion seminal.

Gazeta, p. 279; translation Few 2005, 170.

and elsewhere:

[…] Juana, being neither man nor woman, could hardly have commited a crime which necessarily requires the existence of one of the two sexes.

[…] pues no siendo la Juana hombre, ni muger, mal puede incurrir en un delito que necesariamente exige la existencia de uno de los dos sexos.

Gazeta, p. 280; own translation.

From a legal point of view, this is as interesting a defence strategy as Elena/Eleno’s de Cespedes daring (but largely successful) claim to always have had the opposite sex of her/his sex partners. Interestingly, the court seems to have followed Esparragosa’s argument; at least Juana was acquitted.

“… to unmask that phenomenon”: Esparragosa and the Enlightenment discourse on hermaphrodites

The key function of the (published) report, however, was not the criminal process from which it originally emerged; mainly, I would argue, it should be read as a contribution to the contemporary debate of late-Enlightenment authors on the hermaphrodites.Since the mid-eighteenth century, there was a growing body of literature on the existence, or rather the non-existence of ‘true hermaphrodites’ and on deviant female sexuality. Paradoxically perhaps, the more scholars agreed that hermaphrodites did not exist, the more publications on the topic were published. These scholars in the tradition of Parsons (see including the Encyclopédists (see were not the first to doubt the existence of hermaphrodites, but they were the first to use this claim as part of a polemic against traditional natural philosophy, medieval scholarship and ancient mythology.

Indeed, Esparragosa starts with the Ovidian myth of Hermaphrodtus and Salmacis as the orgin of the believe in “double sexed human beings”, a believe not only shared by ordinary people but even  “some philosophers, anatomists and physicians”  (Gazeta, 269). The tone is set from the beginning – there are no ‘true’ hermaphrodites, and if even academics believed in their existence, all the worse for them:

Ever since mythology placed amongst its fables the handsome Hermaphroditus, who united himself with the nymph Salmacis, melting in one single person with two sexes, it appears that the real and physical existence of such a monster of nature originated, gaining a place not only among ordinary people, who easily accept [give their credulity] everything presented to them under a flair of mystery and outside the nature’s sphere, but it also occupies the mind of certain anatomical philosophers and physicians, who ennobled such pretended phantom defending by the splendour of the demonstration/evidence1 what they got to believe, dazzled by the prevalent opinion; and that heavy influence dragged with itself almost all the philosophers of past centuries. It is through this way that the Androgyns have played a distinguished role among the creatures of the universe and, constituting an unfinished2 physical dogma, have given way not only for the holy science to take them as object of some disputations but they have even found a place in the [legal] codifications of the wisest legislators.

Desde que la Mitología colocò entre sus fabulas al bello Hermafrodita [sic!], que unido con la Ninfa Salmasis se convirderon co una identica persona con dos sexos, parece que tuvo origen la existencia real y fisica de aquel monstruo de la naturaleza, que no solo se hizo lugar entre las gentes vulgares, que facilmente dispensan su credulidad a todo lo que se les presenta con  ayre de misterioso y fuera de la esfera de la naturaleza, sino que tambien ocupó el cerebro de algunos filosofos anatomicos y medicos, que ennoblecieron aquel fingi o fantasma sosteniendo con el realce de la demostracion lo que creyeron deslumbrados por la opinion prevaleciente: y aquel poderoso influjo arastró tras si casi á todos los filosofos de los siglos pasados. De èsta suerte han representado los Andrógenos un papel muy distinguido entre los seres del universo, y constituyendo un dogma fiico inconcuso, han dado ocasion no solo á que la ciencia sagrada los tome por objeto de algunas disputas, sino que tambien se han grangeado lugar en los codigos de los mas sabios legisladores.

Gazeta, p. 269; translation by Enrique Corredera Nilsson.

The allusion to Ovid is fairly straightforward; the philosophers ‘of past centures’ almost certainly refer to Plato (who related the myth of the ‘spherical’ androgynes) and Aristotle (who did not believe in hermaphrodites, but was thought to have done so), and more generall to ancient and medieval  ‘natural philosophy’. As for the ‘holy science’ and the ‘wise legislators’, Esparragosa is referring to the treatment of hermaphrodites in both canon law and Roman law.

Such criticism was common in the late 18th and the early 19th centuries. To take an example that may have been known to Esparragosa, Fernández del Valle in his Cirugía forense expressed similar positions:

Hermaphrodites, or rather she-hermaphrodites, have been the object of various theories of authors of all discipines, of great learning and judgement. With all due respect, however, to these great men, I say with the best and the majority of modern anatomists that there never was a class of such subjects […] who have both sexes.

Los hermafroditas, ó sean las hermafroditas, han sido el objeto de várias tareas literarias, entre Autores de todas clases, y de grande sabiduría y santidad. Sin faltar, pues, al respeto de estos hombres grandes, digo con el mayor número de los mejores y mas modernos Anatómicos, que nunca ha exîstido semejante clase de sugetos […] que tienen los dos sexôs.

del Valle 1796, 88 (; own translation.

In my opinion, Esparragosa just like Fernández del Valle a few years before him was mainly interested in the philosophical argument – not anatomy as such, let alone the ‘hermaphrodite’ in question. Significantly, Esparragosa asserts (without providing any references) that the case had been used to argue for the existence of ‘true’ hermaphrodites, and clearly welcomes the trial against Juana as an occasion to ‘unmaks’ this claim:

Naturally, the present case of Juana La Larga, object of my investigations and of this report, has been cited previously as something certain, [as] irrefutable proof of hermaphroditism for future ages. If it had not been for the criminal excesses that have been attributed to her, she would not have been subject to the judgment of the Tribunal [of the Royal Protomedicato] and had [the issue] resolved by the most  prudent and only means [necessary] to unmask that phenomenon.

Desde luego que el caso presente de Juana la larga, objeto demis investigaciones y de èste informe, se hubiera citado en lo sucesivo por un hecho cierto, comprobante irrefragable del Hermafroditismo en las edades futuras, si por el exceso criminoso que se la imputa, no se hubiera sujetado al juicio del tribunal de U. A. , que acordó el medio mas prudente y unico para desenmascarar aquel fenomeno […].

Gazeta, p. 270; translation Few 2005, 162.

True, his intervention did save Juana from the accusation of sodomy, but it is also clear that for Esparragosa, the real issue was to show how irrational ancient natural philophy was. Quoting the alleged persecution of hermaphrodites in Greek and Roman antiquity, Esparragosa suggests that Juana was accused of hermaphroditism; by this, he constructs a parallel between the sodomy charges of his own time and the (alleged) persecution of hermaphrodites in antiquity (Gazeta, p. 280). Like other Englightenment authors, then, he links the believe in hermaphrodites to their persecution – as if the laws were directed against hermaphrodites where in fact it was sodomy that was at issue.

Marvels of the … West

Esparragosa also is in tune with the mainstream Enlightenment literature on hermaphroditesin his explanation why so many generations (‘almost all philosophers of past centuries) had believed in the existence of hermaphrodites; in reality, he argued, they were only women with a large clitoris. While he concedes that women could use such a clitoris to penetrate other women, he insist that this is not ‘really’ a sexual act (and hence Juana could not even possibly have commited sodomy with other women, see above).

It is also remarkable, how quickly he goes on to quote Egypt and ‘the East’ as the places where such abnormities were common:

One has observed with excessive frequency the extraordinary size [of the clitoris], as have testifed various anatomists and surgeons. That excess that is most familiar to us is the excess [found] among Egyptians and the rest of the nations of the East, where it is necessary that their women suffer burning or amputation for the purpose that they remain suitable for marriage; this kind of surgery being very common in those nations, as much for necessity as for honor [and decorum].

[…] se ha observado con demasiada frquencia de un tamaño extraordinario, como lo testifician varios Cirujanos y Anatomicos: de modo que es tan familiar aquel exceso entre los egipcios y otras naciones orientales, que es necesario sufran sus mugeres la combustion ó amputación á fin de que queden aptas para el matrimonio: siendo è ta parte de la Cirujia muy frequente en aquellas naciones, así por necesidad como por decoro.

Gazeta, p. 271; translation Few 2005, 170.

The idea that hermaphrodites were common in ‘the East’ and Africa was common since Roman antiquity (see In colonial times, the Americas were likewise seen as a place were marvels were found – ‘Marvels of the West’ (so to speak), including cannibalism, sodomy and hermaphroditism. Likewise, Esparragosa’s more specific reference to Egypt is part and parcel of contemporary lore on female sexuality. Ever since the the “rediscovery of the clitoris” (Park 1997), western authors writing on female genital anatomy would almost invariably quote Egypt, Ethiopia or Africa in general in the context of the ‘excessive’ size of the clitoris and clitoridectomy (see Hulverscheidt 2011, ch. 4 for the 19th century). Hermaphrodites in this tradition had become female, so to speak – and female bodies dangerously close to the nefarious hermaphrodite.


Scholarship (Foucault, Laquer, etc.) often emphasized that the late 18th century marked a turning point in the history of the perception of hermaphrodites. All too often, this has led scholar to study time and again a small set of mostly French primary sources; literature on English, German and Spanish scholarship of the time is still relatively scarce (see for an important exception).

The report in the Gazeta de Guatemala shows that seemingly provincial places, largely ignored by mainstream scholarship, were also quite ‘up to date’ when it comes to the debate on hermaphrodites. More importantly, perhaps, the colonial setting may also deserve closer attention because the discourse on hermaphrodite was not only about sex and gender, but also about race – just like the ‘monstrous races’ in pre-modern times were “Marvels of the East”, modern scholars assumed that “monstrosities” like an excessively large clitoris was mainly found among non-western peoples. Clearly, debates about sexual deviance had a new quality in colonial contexts.

Also, if we compare the report on Juana la Larga to medieval accounts of hermaphrodites living as men, there seems to be a general trend that the requirements for “manliness” were rising in modern times. For medieval church courts, it often was enough that an hermaphrodite had a penis to pass as male. Indeed, church courts and neighbors were ready to accept women-turned-men to marry as men, as long as they had a penis – whatever their bodies looked otherwise, whatever the sex assigned at birth was, and whether or not the person had been married as a woman before (see In many similar cases of the 16th to 18th centuries, including that of Juana la Larga, this would not have been enough – often, fertility or at least ejaculation (“la polucion seminal”, Gazeta, p. 279) were required. In the case of Juana, Esparragosa managed to use this specific requirement in her favour, but it made things much more difficult for all “normal” hermaphrodites who claimed male status.



Secondary literature

Martha Few, “That Monster of Nature”: Gender, Sexuality, and the Medicalization of a “Hermaphrodite” in Late Colonial Guatemala, Ethnohistory 54 (2007), 159–176.

Marion Hulverscheidt, Weibliche Genitalverstümmelung: Diskussion und Praxis in der Medizin während des 19. Jahrhunderts im deutschsprachigen Raum, Frankfurt 2011.

Katharine Park, The rediscovery of the clitoris. French medicine and the tribade, 1570–1620, in: The body in parts. Fantasies of corporeality in early modern Europe, New York and London 1997, 171–193.

Primary sources

Gazeta de Guatemala, issues nos. 310-311 of 4 and 11 July 1803 [; also available for download here: GazetadeGuatemala_1803.pdf]

Juan Fernández del Valle, Cirugía forense, general y particular: dividida en quatro partes, que son, cirugía forense civil-política, militar, canónica y criminal, 3 vols., Madrid 1796/97.



1 In Spanish the word comprises both meanings and a combination of both is what better fits here

2 The word “inconcuso” as it appears in the original does not exist, it must be a print mistake, being the right word “inconcluso”

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Christof Rolker (2016, 14. September). Not male enough for nefarious crimes: an hermaphrodite in Guatemala (1803). Männlich-weiblich-zwischen. Abgerufen am 25. Juni 2024, von

Christof Rolker

Prof. Dr. Christof Rolker, Historiker an der Universität Bamberg.

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Christof Rolker

Prof. Dr. Christof Rolker, Historiker an der Universität Bamberg.

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  1. 18/09/2016

    […] case against Juana la Larga apparently was set to stage! Look here for more information (no reservations at the moment, […]

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