A History of Lithopedions: When a Fetus Turns to Stone

A History of Lithopedions: When a Fetus Turns to Stone

In ancient Greek mythology, after the great flood, Deucalion and Pyrrha repopulated the world by scattering stones throughout the earth. From these stones emerged people; from these people grew the world. It’s a myth, but its opposite is possible. Sometimes, humans turn to stone.

A lithopedion baby, or stone baby, is formed when a fetus growing outside of the uterus dies. Too large to be reabsorbed back into its mother, the child calcifies to keep the mother safe from infection. Lithopedion babies seem to mostly occur in ectopic pregnancies: only 13 of the reported cases of lithopedions were uterine, and the resulting stone children were found in the abdomen after the uterus ruptured during birth. Many women who have lithopedions go on to have other children, carrying their flesh-and-blood children in the same body that’s housing their child of stone.

There are only around 300 documented cases of lithopedions in the world. The earliest case in modern record is known as the lithopedion of Sens: a little girl, born in 1582, from the corpse of her mother, Madame Colombe Charti. Charti was the wife of a tailor, and she died at 68 after complaining for 28 years of abdominal pain and a loss of appetite, which she could trace back to the pregnancy she had at age 40. It was a mysterious incident: her period stopped, her breast and stomach grew; she even felt the child inside of her move. But when she went into labor, nothing emerged except amniotic fluid tinged with blood. Madame Charti suspected that the child remained inside, but no doctor could help her.

After her death, her husband ordered an autopsy. The skilled surgeons, Claude le Noir and Iehan Couttas, cut into Madame Charti’s body and saw a large growth in her stomach. They broke their razors trying to penetrate the tumor, so they attacked it with mauls and drills. Finally they cracked open the stone and saw inside the head and shoulder of a child.

Excited by their discovery, the surgeons called in other physicians and continued to tear away at the calcified remains with iron tongs. In his book The Two-Headed Boy, Jan Bondeson describes the tumor as hard, “wrinkled and formed like a turkey’s crest.” The child within it looked like this: “The right arm extended down toward the navel; its hand had been broken off through carelessness when the stone-child was extracted. The bones of the head were transparent and the fontanelles were not closed. In several places the skin of the head was covered with hair. The stone-child had one sole tooth, situated in the lower jaw.”

Jean d’Ailleboust, one of the attending physicians, acquired the baby and wrote a pamphlet about the mysterious stone child; it became a bestseller. In the pamphlet he drew a picture of Charti, cut open and lying dead on a bed, a stone child inside of her and beside her. Bondeson speculates that the image, which looks nothing like a 68-year-old woman, was inspired by pornography. The image shows a woman, head back as if in a pose of ecstasy, or agony. That this moment would be sexualized is immediately off-putting: Madame Charti isn’t even given the dignity of her own body being commemorated, the body that produced this stone fruit of the womb.

But then again, the French euphemism for orgasm is “petit mort,” little death. And the picture depicts the little death of an infant. “Petit mort” also refers to the feeling of a small part of you dying when something bad happens. And in this case, Madame Charti did have part of her die: it was petit mort in a literal and figurative sense. In a way, the sexualization, through crass, fits.

Regardless of Ailleboust’s intentions in using pornography to inspire the picture, the child was a valuable curiosity. Ailleboust eventually parted with the stone child for a good sum of money, and from there it found its way through museums and collections until it ended up in the Danish royal museum. In 1826 it was transferred to the Danish Museum of Natural History and then disappeared. Bondeson speculates that the child was lost due to vandalism. Part of me wishes that the child found a way to turn back from stone into life.

In a poem to commemorate the lithopedion of Sens, Jean d’ Ailleboust wrote, “From the rocks Deucalion had dropped behind/had fashioned the living flesh of humankind;/How was it then done, that a tender babe well formed/was, by reversal, into solid rock transformed?”

Ambrose Paré, one of d’Ailleboust’s contemporaries, saw the lithopedion of Sens and recorded it in his book On Monsters and Marvels. In this book, Paré drew a more accurate picture of the stone child, but the chapter heading above the picture reads, “An example of monsters that are formed, the mother having remained seated too long, having had her legs crossed, or having bound her belly too tight while she was pregnant.” He blamed Charti outright, and by extension, warned all women: if you are too uptight, too reserved, too tightly bound, you might turn her child into stone. In a similar manner, Ailleboust had written in his pamphlet that the child was turned into stone because of a lack of warmth in the mother’s womb and excessive dryness in her blood.

It would be easy to pass off Paré’s and Ailleboust’s explanations as a bit of folksy reasoning, but the long tradition of mythology about people who turn to stone relies, often, on women (and mothers) who do something wrong: they are physically absent, or they lack love, warmth, kindness, care, and womanly attributes. In an Inuit tale of the stone child, an abandoned boy, hungry and cold, breathes life into a rock, who becomes his partner. Lot’s wife turns to stone when she fails to obey the commands of God. Medusa, that ugly bitch, turns anyone who looks at her into stone. The witch in the Chronicles of Narnia turns into stone those who oppose her or seek to thaw her eternal winter.

The myth about cold women and stone children doesn’t just exist in the realm of folklore or the ancient sexism of medicine. This belief has persisted even into the 20th century. A popular medical theory blamed autism on “refrigerator mothers” who were too cold to love their children. Stone children, both literal and figurative, are born of a mother’s lack. For a child to turn to stone is to be subject to the cold and cruel inattentions of women, or so the men think.

Of course, the reality is that a child turns to stone within a mother as an accident of biology. But these stories carry an almost inherently mythological weight. In one case, a woman labored for seven weeks, unable to expel her child from her body. The child died and the mother’s body had find a way to separate mother and child—to protect one from the other, even from within. So, the child calcified and turned into rock, and in the process turned the mother into Sisyphus, always carrying stone. But the line between myth and medicine has always been murky. And never is it more so than with a lithopedion: a human cursed into stone by an accident of fate. A child sacrificing to save the mother. A mother holding her child to her, with her, always.

In Morocco there’s a belief that, through magic, children can be halted in their growth in the womb in order to protect the mother. These are called “sleeping children,” and modern Moroccan law even provides for this bit of magic by stipulating that a child born a year after a separation still belongs to the ex-husband. In 1955, when Zahra Aboutalib was in labor with her first child, the doctors at her small clinic just outside of Casablanca told her she would need a cesarean section. Aboutalib had just seen another mother die from a C-section, so she fled the clinic in fear. After a few days, the labor pains ceased and she believed that that through an unknown magic designed to protect her, her child had become a sleeping child. She carried it with her for 46 years, adopting three other children and eventually becoming a grandmother. The child in her, she believed, still protected her from death.

The idea of the stone child is frightening. But there is also a tremendous beauty in the way the mother’s body protects and keeps the child. I once lost a child. I had a miscarriage. There was so much blood I gave up using pads and sat on a toilet, sobbing, watching my child bleed from me. Then, when I finally stood, I had to flush: it seemed a banal kind of funeral for an all too common loss. Now, there’s nothing left to remember that pregnancy by except for a note in my medical chart—three pregnancies, two births. I wish I could keep some proof, a testimony to that pain. But there’s just that orchid my friend bought me and my fingernails, which I chew down to the nubs when I remember. There is no evidence of the memory hidden somewhere inside me: I would say in my heart, but maybe it’s actually in my gut, a small stone of grief.

Lyz Lenz has written for The Hairpin, The Toast, The New York Time Motherlode, and other various and sundry internet entities. Find her on twitter @lyzl.

Illustration by Jim Cooke.

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