Blood, Gore, and a Mummy Mix-Up

The mummy of Pizarro was an imposter.
At the cathedral in Lima, Peru, this mummy was mistakenly displayed for almost a century as the remains of Francisco Pizarro.

I first visited the Cathedral in Lima, Peru, in 1979, and saw the mummy of Francisco Pizarro. The mummy had been placed there back in 1891, when Peruvian officials, wanting to prominently display the “Founder of Lima,” had the body moved from the chapel in which it had lain for the previous 350 years.

But was this really Pizarro? Just prior to my visit, workers cleaning a crypt beneath the altar found two wooden boxes, one containing the bones of five people—one missing a head! The other box held a lead casket on which was inscribed in Spanish, “Here is the skull of the Marquis Don Francisco Pizarro, who discovered and won Peru and placed it under the crown of Castile.”

Francisco Pizarro died a violent death. On June 16,1541, while he was having dinner in his governor’s palace, a group of men, led by the son of his ex-partner, Diego de Almagro, broke in and stabbed him to death. As he lay dying from multiple sword wounds, he drew a cross on the ground in his own blood, kissing it, and crying “Jesus.” In 1892, his mummy was exhumed and displayed for almost a century in the Lima, Peru Cathedral, but was discovered to be an imposter when the underground crypt was discovered.

Pizarro had lived a cruel but exciting life. Born in poverty and illiterate all of his life, he sailed with several expeditions to the Americas, including Balboa’s journey to the Pacific. After settling in Panama, he formed a partnership with Almagro, a soldier, and Hernando de Luque, a priest, to explore the territory south of Panama, they discovered the Inca Empire. Pizarro then sailed to Spain to enlist the support of Emperor Charles V, from whom he received the charter to conquer and rule Peru. The

After the bloody conquest of the Incas, where 2000 Indians were slaughtered and Emperor Atahuallpa strangled, Pizarro alienated his partner, Almagro. This eventually led to armed conflict between the former partners, and Pizarro’s brother, Hernando, having Almagro garroted.

The skull in the lead box matched the headless skeleton and, when reunited, turned out to be a man approximately the right age and height for Pizarro at the time of his death. Additionally, the skeleton showed that the man had been murdered by multiple sword thrusts, unlike the mummy which, upon reexamination, showed no wounds, leading Peruvian and American scientists to conclude that the skeleton was indeed that of Pizarro. It is now believed that the mummy who had sat in for Pizarro for so many years, was a church official. He is now retired, and the “real” Pizarro’s bones have taken his place on display.

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