Edward Mordake was a handsome English aristocrat born into wealth and privilege, but also with a terrible curse, according to an 1895 newspaper article published in the Boston Sunday Post. As reported by the Royal Scientific Society, Mordake suffered from the rarest of congenital defects — a shrunken second face on the back of his head that smiled and sneered when Mordake wept and whispered "dreadful temptations" into Mordake's ear.
The young man was so ashamed of his condition that he isolated himself from family and friends, and was so tormented by his "devil twin," as he called it, that he tragically took his own life at just 23 years old.
Or so the legend goes.
More than a century after the macabre tale of Edward Mordake was first published, it still captures the public's imagination. The musician Tom Waits wrote a song about him called "Poor Edward." There was a full-length opera called "Mordake." And in 2014, a character named Edward Mordrake (with an extra "r") appeared on two Halloween episodes of "American Horror Story: Freak Show," where he played a murderer with a sinister second face.
More recently, a Facebook post from 2020 allegedly containing photos of Mordake's second face and even his preserved skull was shared more than 260,000 times, prompting expressions of sympathy for the tortured young man.
But while there is a real yet rare medical condition that can result in infants born with two faces, Mordake himself was a work of fiction masquerading as fact.
Fish Women, Crab Men and Poor Old Mordake
Back in 1895, newspapers like the Boston Sunday Post were the 19th-century version of the National Enquirer. In fact, the late 1890s were the heyday of "yellow journalism," in which newspaper publishers competed for readers with increasingly hyperbolic headlines and salacious stories.
The tale of Edward Mordake appeared under the headline "The Wonders of Modern Science" with the tantalizing teaser "Some Half Human Monsters Once Thought to Be of the Devil's Brood." Among the other "evidence" of human hybrids reported by the Royal Scientific Society were:
- The "fish woman of Lincoln" whose legs were "large branched fish tails"
- A "vicious" creature that was half-man, half crab complete with "monstrous nippers" instead of arms
- The "melon child of Radnor" whose head resembled and ripe red melon and had only a small vertical slit for a mouth
- The "Norfolk spider," a giant spider with a human head, whose existence was confirmed by a member of the clergy. "I saw this monstrous thing myself," wrote the Anglican priest, "otherwise I would not have credited so awful a manifestation of the Creator's wrath."
If the side-show descriptions weren't colorful enough, the newspaper story was accompanied by illustrations of these unfortunate characters, as well as one of "Mordake and His 'Devil Twin'" in which the melancholy young man sits at a table with his (front) face buried in his hands and the fiendish second face staring back at the reader.
Credit for discovering the original 1895 newspaper article goes to Alex Boese of The Museum of Hoaxes, who also found that the "journalist" who wrote it was an author of speculative fiction. Charles Lotin Hildreth was a poet and novelist who wrote books like "The Mysterious City of OO: Adventures in Orbello Land" and the Edgar Allen Poe-inspired anthology "The Masque of Death and Other Poems."
The Second Face Was a 'Beautiful Girl'
Hildreth had a rich and dark imagination, which he used to invent captivating details for his fictional newspaper account of Edward Mordake.
For starters, he described Mordake as "a young man of fine attainments, a profound scholar, and a musician of rare ability." Mordake was also strikingly handsome and graceful. "[H]is face — that is to say, his natural face — was that of Antinous," wrote Hildreth, referring to the Greek youth beloved by the Emperor Hadrian.
Mordake's second face, interestingly, was female. Hildreth describes the "mask"-like face on the back of Mordake's head as "a beautiful girl, 'lovely as a dream, hideous as a devil.'" This second face wasn't lifeless, but exhibited "every sign of intelligence, of a malignant sort, however."
If a visitor caught a glimpse of the second face, its eyes would follow them around the room as its lips "would gibber without ceasing." Its words weren't audible to others, but Mordake heard every last "hateful whisper" of his devil twin.
"[It] never sleeps, but talks to me forever of such things as they only speak of in Hell," Mordake allegedly told his physicians. "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."
According to Hildreth's report, Mordake became so desperate that he begged his doctors to "crush" the second face, even if it cost Mordake his life. Ultimately, Mordake took his fate into his own hands and drank poison. In a final letter, he asked to be buried in an unmarked plot and for the "demon face" to be destroyed "lest it continues its dreadful whisperings in my grave."
After Hildreth's Death, a Second Life for Mordake
Hidreth, the author, died in 1896, a year after he penned the newspaper story about Mordake and other "half human monsters." But that same year, two American doctors published a book called "Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine," which they claimed was "Derived from an Exhaustive Research of Medical Literature."
Their entry on Edward Mordake, however, was "derived" by copying Hildreth's newspaper article word for word. The doctors didn't name their source, nor did they care enough to look up the organization that Hildreth named as his, the Royal Scientific Society. If they had, they would have realized that no such society ever existed.
As Alex Boese from The Museum of Hoaxes pointed out on his website, the inclusion of Mordake's story in a medical text likely gave it an undeserved air of credibility and plausibility that still lingers today. (The social media picture of his "mummified skull" is really a paper-mâché sculpture by artist Ewart Schindler, Reuters reported.)
Yes, Babies Have Been Born with Two Faces
One of the reasons the legend of Edward Mordake sounds believable is that there are real (but extremely rare) congenital defects that result in human babies being born with two faces.
One condition is called craniofacial duplication or diprosopus (Greek for "two-faced"). According to the "Embryo Project Encyclopedia" published by the Center for Biology and Society at Arizona State University, there have been fewer than 50 cases worldwide of infants born with diprosopus since 1864, and most of them were stillborn.
Unlike the fictional Mordake, babies born with diprosopus have one trunk and two faces side by side on the front of the head, not a smaller second face on the back of the head.
In 2008, a baby girl in India was born with two distinct faces and was one of the rare cases of diprosopus in which the baby seemed otherwise healthy. Born in a humble village outside of New Delhi, the girl was worshiped by some as a reincarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga, who is depicted with three eyes and multiple arms. According to some sources, the little girl died at 2 months old.
Some people compare Mordake's fictional condition with an even rarer congenital defect called craniopagus parasiticus, which occurs in an estimated six out of every 10 million births. Unlike diprosopus, in which only the face is duplicated, babies born with craniopagus parasiticus are conjoined with an entire underdeveloped twin (lacking internal organs and limbs) attached to their head. In at least three cases, surgeons have been able to remove the "parasitic" twin and save the other child's life.
Mordake could not have had craniopagus parasiticus, though, because it only happens with conjoined identical twins. And as Hildreth so "faithfully" reported, Mordake's evil twin was a girl.