He was said to be a charming scholar and heir to English nobility, but Edward Mordrake suffered from an uncommon malady that drove him to suicide at only 23. This Victorian legend was spread mostly by whispers and apocryphal texts and now circulates on the internet as boiled down “creepypasta” attached to a wax rendering of the mythical man driven to madness by a second “demon” face.
It appears that Edward Mordrake was actually a real man because a story about him was published in the 1896 edition of Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, George Gould’s account of Mordrake, however, is highly poetic and fantastical for a medical case study:
“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.”
Even if you don’t believe in spirits and demons, there is very much about Mordrake’s story that is plausible. People can be born with a second face, a condition known as diprosopus, or cranio-facial duplication, and the human brain is a source for all sorts of terrors. Cranio-facial duplication is caused by too much of a certain protein that determines facial features, and French surgeon Ambroise Paré was the first to write of a condition similar to the story of Edward Mordrake in 1634’s Of Monsters and Prodigies.
It’s an extremely rare condition that is even more rare in surviving fetuses, but there are still several documented modern cases. In the 1980s a Chinese man named Chang Tzu Ping traveled to the United States to have a second face on the side of his head removed. Bill Durks (April 17, 1913 – May 7, 1975) was a man whose second face was a sort of continuation of his main face. He had three eyes, a second nose of sorts, and a cleft in the middle of his large mouth. Instead of hiding away or trying surgery to remove or alter his features, Durks enhanced them with makeup and traveled in a sideshow act with his wife Mildred, who was known as the “Alligator-skinned woman.” Just in 2008 a baby girl, Lali Singh, was born in India with an almost perfect duplication of her face. She was revered as a reincarnation of a Hindi goddess before passing away at two-months old.
Edward’s story, especially with its romantic flourishes, is an allegory of the duel-self, the double, the idea that we have a bad side and a good side, that there is a demon part of us we would like to cut out. It’s often hard to reconcile our best self with the destructive and mean qualities that can bubble up like some wicked alien force. “Who is this me that can be so kind and unassuming and yet behave so badly?” we marvel at ourselves. Mordrake’s story licks at our fears and the depths of our imaginations.
I first heard of Edward’s woeful tale on Tom Waits’ 2002 release Alice. Waits is a magician of sound and words, and Edward’s extraordinary lament fit in well with the rest of the ghostly fairytales.
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