William Hickling Prescott was an aristocratic Bostonian from the early 1800s who amused himself by writing histories of the Spanish Empire. He reads like a combination of Jane Austen and Indiana Jones. Here he describes the last days of an Aztec sacrificial victim:
“Four beautiful girls, bearing the names of the principal goddesses, were then selected to share the honours of his bed; and with them he continued to live in idle dalliance, feasted at the banquets of the principle nobles, who paid him all the honors of a divinity.
“At length the fatal day of sacrifice arrived. The term of his short-lived glories was at an end. He was stripped of his gaudy apparel, and bade adieu to the fair partners of his revelries. One of the royal barges transported him across the lake to a temple which rose on its margin, about a league from the city. Hither the inhabitants of the capital flocked, to witness the consummation of the ceremony. As the sad procession wound up the sides of the pyramid, the unhappy victim threw away his gay chaplet of flowers, and broke in pieces the musical instruments with which he had solaced the hours of captivity.
“On the summit he was received by six priests, whose long and matted locks flowed disorderly over their sable robes, covered with hieroglyphic scrolls of mystic import. They lead him to the sacrificial stone, a huge block of jasper, with its upper surface somewhat convex. On this the prisoner was stretched.
“Five priests secured his head and his limbs; while the sixth, clad in a scarlet mantle, emblematic of his bloody office, dexterously opened the breast of the wretched victim with a sharp razor of itztli–a volcanic substance hard as flint,–and, inserting his hand in the wound, tore out the palpitating heart.
“The minister of death, first holding this up toward the sun, an object of worship throughout the Anahuac, cast it at the feet of the deity to whom the temple was devoted, while the multitudes below prostrated themselves in humble adoration.”
Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico teems with stories that have no business existing outside the pages of thrillers: lost cities, prophecies of doom fulfilled, battles won by stylish desperadoes against overwhelming odds, forgotten manuscripts, pirates, beautiful princesses in peril, double agents, weird gods, and, at the center of it all, a huge, gleaming hoard of ill-gotten treasure.