Monstrous Twins

Physical abnormality is a difficult and emotive subject, and the late seventeenth century saw the emergence of the first glimmers of understanding about genetic disorders.  There were many who still believe the sperm was delivered to the mother as a tiny homunculus, which she then nurtured and brought into the world.  Any abnormalities were of course, the mother’s fault.  

There was a new school of thought: that material for a child was inherited from both parents.  Such new ideas paved the way for new medical journals, and new ways of addressing patients.  Emphasis was placed on the medical practitioner having seen and examined each case, and descriptions were more accurate than they had been before.  
Of particular interest were conjoined and parasitic twins (a twin not fully formed and utterly dependent on the other, rather than ‘Siamese’ twins).  Other than in the poorest countries of the modern world, every effort is made to separate or disengage twins joined at birth and efforts were made, even in the 17thC to separate twins who did not share organs, but the majority would struggle through life as they were.  London appears to have drawn them in.  The following note appears in the Statues on Slavery.  
Sir Thomas Graham bought a monster in the Indies, which was a man of that country,
which had a perfect shape of a child growing out of his breast; as an excres-
ency, all but the head.  This man he brought hither (i.e. to England) and
exposed to the sight of the people for profit.
In the same year, in Genoa, James Pero was born, displaying a similar parasitic twin called Matthew, which you can see in the gallery.  He appeared on show in London in 1714, prompting Sir Hans Sloane to commission his portrait (now in the British Museum).  Another witness to James Pero’s show was James Paris du Plessis.  Paris was not a physician (he was a servant and for some time worked for Samuel Pepys), but he was fascinated by medical anomalies, and by the end of his life had amassed a large library of associated matter.  Written circa 1731, his History of Prodigies detailed the lusus naturae or natural freaks he had seen on his travels in service.  There is no hint of kindness in his tales, but there is little of cruelty either, he is simply an observer, although on occasion he is rather more ‘hands on’ than perhaps he should’ve been: fascinated by the ‘Yorkshire hermaphrodite’ and noted ‘its viril Herge did erect by Provocation’.

Every so often, something truly grotesque appears (don’t read this if you have a delicate constitution):


December, 1748

Two months ago, J.H. a poor

woman belonging to this town,

was delivered of a monstrous child,

which, besides the usual form and parts

of a female, had adhering to, or rather

contained in it, as in its capsula, a rude

and imperfect substance, whose shape

is somewhat conical; at the birth it re-

sembled a large cyst, or bag, extending

itself from the fundament quite down 

to the toes of the child; its size was e-

qual to that of a bullock’s heart, was co-

ver’d with a thin membrane, in which

was contained a limpid fluid. A few 

days after the birth, the membrane 

burthing, discovered to view an irregular

mass of flesh, perfectly human, with a 

smooth skin of a florid colour: In its

inside are solid substances, which feel

like bones; and on its external surface

are visible a distinct hand and foot; on 

the former are five fingers and a thumb,

on the latter four toes, with the great

toe in the middle. There was no other

visible distinction of either parts or sex

in this substance, for part of it is still

lodg’d in the body of the child, and

possesses all that cavity form’d by the

ossa innominata (the pubic bone), reaching upwards half

the length of the spina dorsi (the spine), in order to

the lodgment of which, the rectum of 

the child gives way, and discharges its

excrements very regularly at the left 

groin.  But the uncommon bulk, in

equality, and feel of the parts, I appre

hend there are distinct extremeties, and

a head still conceal’d from view; the

whole bulk, if extract’d, would be near

ly equal to that of the child—-It re

ceives fluids, and increases in bulk, tho’

whether it enjoys an animal or vegeta

ble life is uncertain.  I saw the child

yesterday, which feed heartily; many

hundreds beside myself have likewise 

seen it; and ‘tis allow’d to be one of of

the most surprising instances of the kind

ever seen of heard of.

Such phaenomena, as they are re-

markable displays of divine almighty

power, so they are undoubtedly visible

proofs of God’s displeasure against sin,*

in that, contrary to the established laws

of nature, he sometimes permits such

uncommon lusus naturae (freaks of nature) to exist among

the human species; for in general har-

mony and proportion are the beauty of

his works. 


* The parent of the child has been remarkably vile, and her offspring is spurious.


The freakishness of this entire entry is only compounded by the equal vileness of the ‘constant reader’ who submitted it.

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