Have you ever been called two-faced? It’s kind of a nasty thing to be labelled, as are most labels. Of course, it means that a person says one thing at one time, while saying the opposite at another, or more likely it denotes false friendship. It doesn’t mean that one does in fact have two faces. Or, well…it doesn’t usually.
There are people, however rare, for whom the two-faced label is actually accurate. It’s called diprosopus. That’s a Latinised Greek word meaning ‘two-face-person’, and it’s an exceedingly rare and somewhat disturbing genetic defect of birth. It’s also known as craniofacial duplication, and that name gives you a better idea of what these poor people suffer through. Now, that’s not to be confused with polycephaly – the unfortunate instance of people (or animals) being born with two heads. No, diprosopus refers specifically to facial features. Often it’s only a single facial element, like an extra nose, or ear, but in some rare cases the entire face is duplicated.
Perhaps the most famous case of diprosopus was that of Edward Mordake.
Mordake was born into what most would consider lavish circumstances. He was the heir to an unspecified British peerage in the mid-19th century. If you’re not familiar with that term, it basically means he stood to inherit a title under British nobility (Duke, Earl, Barron, etc.) and all of the rights and responsibilities included with such station. He would also have been heir to a sizable estate. These days, only the royal family are able to inherit peerage, and it’s granted on a ceremonial basis to persons with the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords. It’s like winning the lottery at birth, except, not so much in Mordake’s case.
He was born diprosopus. He had a fully formed second face on the back of his head. That gives new meaning to the phrase ‘eyes in the back of your head’, doesn’t it?
Not much is known about him, but his condition was described in the book Anomalies and curiosities of medicine (1900), by George M. Gould. In it Gould paints a somewhat gruesome picture of this young man’s life.
“One of the weirdest as well as most melancholy stories of human deformity is that of Edward Mordake, said to have been heir to one of the noblest peerages in England. He never claimed the title, however, and committed suicide in his twenty-third year. He lived in complete seclusion, refusing the visits even of the members of his own family. He was a young man of fine attainments, a profound scholar, and a musician of rare ability. His figure was remarkable for its grace, and his face — that is to say, his natural face — was that of an Antinous. But upon the back of his head was another face, that of a beautiful girl, ‘lovely as a dream, hideous as a devil’. The female face was a mere mask, ‘occupying only a small portion of the posterior part of the skull, yet exhibiting every sign of intelligence, of a malignant sort, however’. It would be been seen to smile and sneer while Mordake was weeping. The eyes would follow the movements of the spectator, and the lips ‘would gibber without ceasing’. No voice was audible, but Mordake avers that he was kept from his rest at night by the hateful whispers of his ‘devil twin’, as he called it, ‘which never sleeps, but talks to me forever of such things as they only speak of in Hell. No imagination can conceive the dreadful temptations it sets before me. For some unforgiven wickedness of my forefathers I am knit to this fiend — for a fiend it surely is. I beg and beseech you to crush it out of human semblance, even if I die for it.’ Such were the words of the hapless Mordake to Manvers and Treadwell, his physicians. In spite of careful watching, he managed to procure poison, whereof he died, leaving a letter requesting that the ‘demon face’ might be destroyed before his burial, ‘lest it continues its dreadful whisperings in my grave.’ At his own request he was interred in a waste place, without stone or legend to mark his grave.”
You can gather from this passage that Mordake lived a tortured life, as short as it was. You may also gather that there is some doubt about whether he truly did exist. The picture that is commonly attributed to him isn’t necessarily him. It seems like it could be of the right era, and it does indeed show a man suffering with diprosopus, but whether that actually is Edward Mordake is still up for debate. Given his extreme reclusion, it seems unlikely there would have been any pictures taken, at least with his consent.
Mordake is apparently unique in having had a second face that was capable of expression and tears, and even, in his words, of whispering hate in the quiet hours of the morning. How much of this is accurate is unclear, but he’s not the only person to have suffered this cruel fate.
Some accounts tell of a man from around the same period as Mordake, known commonly as The Two-Headed Mexican. His real name was Pasqual Pinon, and he was said to have a second face protruding from his rather large forehead. Pinon, though, was something of a fraud. He did have a large tumour growing on his head, likely caused by craniopagus paraciticus, but he was not actually diprosopus. He was discovered by promoters from the American-based Sells Floto Circus and marketed as a part of their ‘freak show’. His second face, however, was a wax mask created by the promoters to get a better bang for their buck.
Almost all of the unfortunate souls who have been born with diprosopus have died shortly after birth, if they were not stillborn. A little girl named Lali Signh, born in Saini, Sunpura Sohanpur village near Delhi, in 2008, survived for two months (to the day) after her difficult birth. She had four eyes, two noses, two mouths, but only two ears. In that short time she was venerated by her village and by many around the world as a reincarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga (who had three eyes), and even the legendary Ganesh.
And then there was Faith and Hope Howie, born in Australia on May 8, 2014. They had a single skull, but two full faces, two complete (yet deformed) brains, which were attached to a single brain stem, and they behaved as two distinct individuals. Unfortunately, they lost their fight for survival after just 19 days.
Most often, infants with diprosopus suffer other serious and usually fatal deformations, such as anencephaly, neural tube defects and cardiac malformations. Thus survival is quite unlikely. This also casts further doubt on the case of Edward Mordake.
Diprosopus is clearly a devastating condition for all who are touched by it. Human cases are, as mentioned, quite rare, but it is known in many animal species. In felines, they’re called Janus Cats. A relatively famous pig with the condition – Ditto the pig – survived several years under the care of her owner. But whether Mordake did exist, and whether he did in fact survive to adulthood with craniofacial duplication, his legacy lives on. He’s had songs written about him, and he’s even the subject of a US made thriller directed by Mark Christensen called Edward Mordake: Never Listen To Your Own Head (to be released October 24, 2014). It’s possible that the picture attributed to Mordake is a leaked image from this film.
Historically, people and even animals born with these kinds of serious defects are met with a mix of morbid curiosity and religious damnation. People with serious disfigurements have typically been scorned by society, and exploited, but perhaps with the advances we’ve recently seen in genomic research, we can offer solutions to future cases, rather than mockery and hate.