It’s 19th-century England, and a little boy is born into a very well-to-do family. Aristocratic and in line for a title, little Edward Mordrake has the world at his feet. Except, that is, for two things: his face.
Confused? So, probably, were his family, as baby boy Mordrake is said to have been born with an incredibly rare condition: a complete second face on the back of his head. And complete means the full deal: eyes, mouth, nose, everything. In medical circles, this affliction is known as diprosopus.
Growing up, Mordrake was by all accounts a gentle and delightful boy, attending school and maturing into a good-looking, well-schooled and affluent member of the English upper class. The young man was also reputedly a talented musician, but he had been described as “darkly troubled,” too.
And no wonder. For as it turned out, the poor boy’s duplicate face apparently wasn’t just a banal, genetic fluke. According to legend, it was an entirely mobile and expressive visage; the eyes could be seen to flicker about, and the lips moved as if in silent prayer.
In and of themselves, those moving eyes and lips could be utterly disturbing to anyone watching. But, with these features apparently located to the rear of Mordrake’s skull, it seems that the man himself couldn’t actually see any of the reported movements of the stranger on his head. Which begs the question: why so troubled, young man?
The answer, it seems, is far more complex than you might imagine. In addition to the psychological complications of living with an extra face, Mordrake’s reported condition supposedly extended not just to involuntary movement of the duplicate facial features – but also to very deliberate ones.
To be clear, what Mordrake and contemporary witnesses reputedly reported were flickers of intelligence, reactions to events and, even more disturbingly, “sneering.” Indeed, the face was said to grin while its owner’s “real” face was crying.
And the creepy interactions seemingly didn’t stop there. In addition to the face laughing inappropriately, Mordrake is claimed to have told his doctors that his extra visage spoke to him – and only him. He apparently related that it “never sleeps but talks to me forever of such things as they only speak of in hell.”
So, it seems that Mordrake wasn’t just born with a duplicate face but also perhaps with a second being – one that he described as “a fiend” – attached to him. Convinced that he was being punished for “some unforgiven wickedness of his forefathers,” he supposedly removed himself from public life. The legendarily afflicted man is also reported to have pleaded with his physician to separate him from what was considered a “malignant” presence. But worse, it seems, was to follow.
Mordrake is said to have taken his own life at just 23 years old. Believed to have been pushed to insanity by the presence of a being that he could hear but never see, the young man allegedly ingested poison and left behind a note requesting that the face be excised from his flesh before he was laid to rest.
That perhaps should have been the end of Mordrake’s tale. However, in April 2018 a photograph surfaced on Facebook purporting to depict the man’s actual skull, replete with its duplicate facial features. An instant hit, the image soon garnered over 31,000 likes and 82,000 shares.
Could this be the actual proof of Mordrake’s “malignant presence”? The image vividly depicts the visage that the man himself had apparently been unable to see. The accompanying caption describes the twin features as a “demon face” – and with its pointed chin, sharp teeth and, frankly, evil-looking grimace, it’s hard to disagree.
So, is this an image of the very skull that caused poor Mordrake such trouble and drove him to end his life? The short answer is: no, it isn’t. Why? Well, the explanation is two-fold and may very well surprise you.
Firstly, let’s take a closer look at the life and times of the star of this tale. The details about the “English nobleman” are sketchy at best, and no official records of his life exist. Nor have any medical records been found for what would have been a rare and fascinating case that surely would have been documented.
And even though Mordrake’s case actually appeared in the pages of an 1896 issue of the journal Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, that information has been traced back to a rather less than reliable source. The tale was first published the previous year in the Boston Sunday Post, a newspaper notorious for its highly dubious and sensational stories of spectacularly deformed humans and animals.
Even more suspect is the background and history of the original author of the piece. Step forward Mr. Charles Lotin Hildreth. A poet and children’s author, Hildreth was also a regular columnist for the Boston Sunday Post. The author’s outlandish tales of “half-human monsters” were often presented as fact. And it was in one of these columns that Mordrake first appeared.
So while all of this evidence would point to Mordrake being fictional, that doesn’t mean that his condition isn’t real; while certainly rare, real humans have been born with diprosopus. The most famous case of recent times was that of baby Lali Singh, who was born with two complete faces in 2008.
Far from the baby being considered a local curiosity, though, in Lali’s native India she was believed to be a reincarnation of many Hindu gods. But, as with almost all babies born with diprosopus, complications associated with the condition meant that her life was cut incredibly short. She died at just two months old.
And that Facebook post? Well, it’s actually a digital picture of a papier-mâché sculpture of what poor Mordrake and his other face might have looked like, had he ever existed, by artist Ewart Schindler.
According to Schindler, he “really wanted to make the piece as realistic as [he] could.” It seems, then, that Mordrake’s faces have indeed passed into folklore, immortalized in art, on TV and in music. Despite perhaps never having taken a breath, the two-faced man has somehow been taken into our collective psyche…