Double-Headed Monsters in Fiction

Double-Headed Monsters in Fiction two headed child

Double-Headed Monsters in Fiction

For all of you making out your reading lists for the beach, there is one category of fortean fiction that has been unjustly underrepresented.


The utilization of pathologic data in fiction has become so widespread that the neglect of the rich field of teratologic conditions must appear rather mysterious. Considering the casuistic discussions of the marriage of the Siamese twins and of the marital status of the pyopagic (backunited) “Double-Headed Nightingale,” [Millie-Christine] it seems strange in these days of realism, that so little use should be made of double-headed monsters in fiction. This appears particularly unaccountable, when the legal, amatory, ethic and marital complications thereon resultant (capable of producing such beautifully intricate plots) are considered. The “Double-Headed Nightingale” was legally decided to be two persons; marriage of one man to whom would result in bigamy. Under certain legal opinions in Illinois, simultaneous marriage with more than one woman does not constitute bigamy in that State. Under this construction of the Illinois statute regulating marriage, the marriage ceremonies must be separate to constitute bigamy. Marriage in Illinois with the “Double-Headed Nightingale” could easily be made a practical simultaneous procedure and hence legal. Under the intricacies of the New York divorce law, a New York marriage could, under certain technicalities, be easily set aside in Kansas, and a second marriage thereafter would be legal. As the first marriage was still legal in New York, a man could easily have two wives in that State without committing bigamy. One half the “Double – Headed Nightingale” could be married in New York and the other (after proper divorce proceedings) in Kansas, both halves being legally wives of the same man in New York. Despite those tempting literary possibilities fiction has neglected this field. [Sir Walter] Besant employed, it is true, a double monster, but only as a portent in “For Faith and Freedom.” Through the pages of that clever parody, “King Solomon’s Wives,” [by “Hyder Ragged”] flits a double-headed caricature of Rider Haggard’s terrifying Gagool. With these exceptions, fiction has until lately neglected the fertile literary possibilities of female double-headed monsters.

It was reserved for an Ohio physician to demonstrate the brilliant outlook for fiction in this particular. Dr. W.C. Cooper of Cleves, Ohio, has proven the great value of the double-headed monster in fiction in his “Mystery of the Wetherton Mansion.” His heroine is an atlodymus with two heads united at the neck to a single body. This monstrosity is the child of a wealthy judge of Southern Illinois, who is a man of broad, general culture. Dr. Cooper is called to attend the wife of the judge in confinement. Owing to severe dystocia the patient becomes moribund. Whereupon Dr. Cooper performs Caesarian section, delivering an atlodymus thus described by himself: The heads and necks were entirely distinct, the union of the necks occurring at their junction with the thorax. It was highly probable that tracheae, esophagi and blood vessels became uniform and common on entering the body. Young as this infant was, it was plainly evident that each head was directly individual. It could be seen too that the child was ambidextrous. There were undoubted signs too that one head bordered strongly on the brunette and the other on the blonde type. They could nurse separately or simultaneously. The only difference was that when both nursed at once the appetite was satisfied twice as quickly as when only one of them was fed. The body was that of a girl.

The Southern Illinois village, where the judge resides, is cursed by the usual spinster gossip, with prurient prudery and mendacity. One of these, loitering around the keyhole of the lying-in room, hears what she considers suspicious remarks by Dr. Cooper. An attack of cholera infantum, due to an uncleansed nursing bottle, calls Dr. Cooper (during the week following the delivery) to the mansion to attend the monstrosity. On his way back to his office he is waylaid by the female “Paul Pry” aforesaid. Injudiciously, but professionally, hoping to check her inquisitiveness, he informs her that the monstrosity is dead, whereupon she has him arrested for murder. Through the judge’s influence and cash, the charge is withdrawn. Popular rumor imputes the death of the monstrosity (which is assumed to have taken place) to natural causes. The monstrosity is, however, brought up in the seclusion of the mansion, to womanhood, and carefully trained by a governess sworn to secrecy. The judge, who has not recovered from the shock of the death of his wife and the birth of the monstrosity, finds from growing age and mental infirmity that he needs a private, confidential secretary. A young lawyer named Jack obtains the place, and in most things, the judge’s confidence. The secret of the monstrosity is, however, kept even from him. As the judge has exhibited continuously increasing mental depression from the time of his wife’s death, his suicide is not a remarkable outcome. The agitation in the household reveals for the first time the existence of the monstrosity to the private secretary. The heads of the atlodymus have been called Alice and Anna.

“Jack falls hopelessly, helplessly in love with Alice. In the innocent frankness of her unsophisticated nature she confesses without a moment’s hesitation that his passion is fully reciprocated. Alice and Anna are nearly inconsolable over their father’s death. Alice, however, rallies from the shock as time drags by. She has Jack’s love to lean on and feed on. Not so with Anna, who being in a decline before her father’s death, receives from that calamity a tremendous downward impetus, and has not the tonic of a lover’s helpful sympathy and counsels to brace her. It becomes rapidly evident that she is sinking back to God. She is absolutely certain that she can die without involving the death of her sister. Alice herself also feels sure of this. It seems that some infallible intuition guides them to this conclusion. Since her father’s death, and especially since Jack’s appearance on the scene, Anna becomes positively anxious to die; there is nothing in the world left for her to live for. However dearly Alice might love her, the conditions were such that life for herself meant wretchedness for her sister. Unless her sister could be happy, she could not. If she should die, two would be perfectly happy. If she should live, three would be miserable. Her intense desire to die no doubt hastened that event, which occurred about two months after her father’s death. The necessity for amputation is evident, but Alice insists on holding the corpse two days to comply with the custom of civilized people. Alice makes a quick recovery after the amputation, and her neck rapidly grows into correct relationship to her body. The outcome is a faultlessly beautiful woman, whom “to see is to love.”

Her feelings after her separation from her sister, Dr. Cooper (in accordance with the well-known literary canon) leaves to the imagination, for whose assistance the fact is mentioned that the head of the sister was preserved in alcohol to be buried with Alice in the same coffin.

It. must be obvious from this résumé that Dr. Cooper has excellently opened a fertile relatively unworked field of limitless possibilities in fiction. He might have instituted a rivalry between the two heads, or might, with the aid of the New York and Illinois statutes, have had a simultaneous marriage. He, however, preferred to blend the older romantic ideas with his fiction, and skilfully employed the self-sacrifice of Anna to relieve the general realistic gloom of the story. What the possibilities for sensational fiction are in this field is shown by the fact of the case reported years ago. by a Brazilian physician, where a double-headed male pyopagus fell in love with a single-headed female syndelphus with a double pair of lower extremities and two sets of pelvic organs. It is hoped, however, that future delvers in this field of fiction will emulate the delicacy of Dr. Cooper in their productions.

Journal of the American Medical Association, Volume 31, 1898

This was, of course, the golden and politically incorrect era of the freak.  You will have noted the titillating interest in the marital affairs of the conjoined in the article above. The newspaper and medical journals were full of rat-children, turtle-boys, and double-babies. Almost invariably these anomalous infants were blamed on injudicious maternal behavior. The children were sometimes sold to showmen or exhibited by their own families. In the face of shortages, they were modeled in wax as gaffs for the carnival sideshow and dime museum market. Their births and deaths were the subject of much journalistic interest. For example:

Death Of The Double Baby.—Mina and Minnie Finley, the double baby, as they have been popularly called, whose case was very fully reported in Dr. William Goodell’s able and interesting lecture “On Monstrosities” which appeared in the number of the Medical Times for June 15, died on the 18th of July in Boston, Mass. From the newspaper account we infer that Mina, the more robust of the children, became sick soon after being taken to Boston, and died after a few days’ illness. The other child seems to have been in perfect health at the time, but, in spite of the efforts of physicians to save its life, died three hours after its sister. It is not known whether the parents of the children permitted a post-mortem examination to be made. The Medical Times and Register, Volume 1, 1871


Well Named “Morehead.”

A child with two heads was born at Hot Springs, Ark., the other day. It is a curious coincidence that the name of the child’s parents is Morehead.

Both heads are well developed, but they are not both located where heads belong. One of them is in the right place, but the other is located at the base of the spinal column—a most out of the way place for a head.

The freak is thriving and bids fair to live. The case is attracting a great deal of attention among medical men. Repository [Canton, OH] 8 November 1896: p. 11

Dr. Cooper seems to be an elusive figure in the world of literature, although we find notices of his papers in medical journals and a fulsome puff piece on Dr. Cooper’s collection of essays, sketches and poems called Tethered Truants appears in the Eclectic Medical Journal, August 1897, in which we are told that the book is two hundred pages of recreation and diversion and the reader will “mentally thank Dr. Cooper for the pains he has taken to please you.”

I have done my best to locate a copy of Mystery of the Wetherton Mansion, but without success. It doesn’t even appear in the WorldCat database, which makes me wonder if it was ever actually published. Teathered Truants was available for $1.00 a copy by pre-subscription directly from Dr. Cooper, so it is possible this was also a self-publishing venture.

I’m of two minds about the novel’s unattainability. The précis above (talk about spoiler alerts!) suggests that, while fraught with interest for the pathologist, the book’s literary merits might have made it scarcely more than a fortean library curiosity. On the other hand, it might have become a cult favorite… “The most riveting piece of fiction starring a female double-headed monster in years!”

Anyone have a copy of this mystery volume? Two heads are better than one… Chriswoodyard8 AT

As a random aside, speaking of fan favorites, I am reminded of Kap-Dwa, the two-headed giant cannibal of Patagonia.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.


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