Persons with unusual skin conditions often used their affliction to their financial advantage in the world of the sideshow. The alligator-skinned (sometimes called elephant-skinned) individual became a very common attraction in the golden age of sideshow – in fact few popular sideshows were without at least one such individual. Not to be confused with the common gaff (faked display) Jake the Alligator Boy.

Ichthyosis is a life long skin disorder which causes the formation of dry, fish-like scales on the surface of the skin. It is an recessive inherited disease – and therefore not a contagious skin condition – however the exact defect that causes the skin to lose moisture is currently unknown. The degree of scaling can vary, as there are twenty five variations of the disease. Some forms of ichthyosis result in little more than ‘dry skin’ and can treated with simple drugstore lotions. However, most forms of ichthyosis are far more severe – and rare – and the scaling can be very heavy causing restriction of movement, deep cracks or fissures at the joints.

The most severe and shocking form of congenital ichthyosis is Harlequin ichthyosis, also know as Harlequin fetus – as until recently survival of the condition was limited to mere hours after birth. Many of the children born with Harlequin ichthyosis ended up in Victorian pickled punk shows as ‘devil children’ but with the advent of modern anti-inflammatory and disinfectants some children have survived more than a decade. The affected child is born not with skin, but instead massive, diamond-shaped scales. Furthermore the eyes, ears, mouth, and other appendages can be abnormally contracted and even ‘turned inside out’. The eyelids especially can appear very disturbing. The scaly armor restricts movement to an alarming degree and because the skin is cracked where normal skin would fold, bacteria and other contaminants easily pass into the cracks and can cause lethal infections.

The term harlequin refers to the baby’s facial expression and the diamond-shaped pattern of the scales. The jester and harlequins of the 17th century wore costumes with diamond patterns on them, as well as a particular style of face paint. The features of the harlequin fetus mimic this stylized makeup, and their faces are often pulled tight into grim parodies of a clown’s smile.
If you would like to see a living infant affected with harlequin ichthyosis click here, however this image is disturbing.

Author, researcher and an expert of the odd, J. Tithonus Pednaud has been chronicling bizarre history and highlighting the lives of those born exceeding different for over a decade.


  • Reply May 14, 2008


    The harlequin baby’s picture truly is heartbreaking…

  • Reply August 12, 2008


    I’m a mother and seeing the picture of that baby scared the shit out of me!

  • Reply September 30, 2008


    So is that baby still alive? God, I feel so lucky to have healthy kids right now…

  • Reply September 30, 2008

    J Tithonus Pednaud

    No, the vast majority of harlequin births prove to be fatal. There have been some notable exceptions, however such cases are extremely rare.

  • Reply November 19, 2008

    Katelyn Kancer

    The picture of the tragic harlequin baby truly astounded me. For all the articles I have read on this amazing anf fascinating website, that picture of the poor, poor baby completely horrified me. Oh, the wonders of the human body. Thanks for posting.

    - Miss. Kancer

  • Reply January 31, 2009


    the harlequin child’s pic was truly heart-wrenching and terrifying…i have two younger sisters and a baby brother with the same affliction, and although theirs is not as severe as the harlequin child’s, there is still much physical and emotional pain there…..

  • Reply February 6, 2009


    Here’s a video on Harlequin Ichtyosis: Truly sad for those babies.

    I love your site; I’ve spent the last few days reading all the bios. Keep up the good work.

  • Reply April 24, 2009


    This picture is indeed shocking at first, however, I’m a year 12 biology student and these babies conditions are indeed livable later on in life thier skin will develop slightly more and they simply look like a fully sunburnt version of you and me though there is no cure, simply applying moisturiser everyday has helped everyone with this condition!

  • Reply July 21, 2010

    Brett Tolmas

    oh gosh the poor baby in the picture…im 6 months pregnet and my husband wont let me do anything…literly i sit on my butt on the couch with my computer and look at this website now im kind of scared that my babb will end up with this horrible condishion. poor little things!

  • Reply February 8, 2011


    Seeing this video made the babies not so scary. Now I understand why they look like they do. You have to be a very loving family to accept someone like her. God bless her and the family!

  • Reply January 15, 2013


    Children with harlequin ichthyosis treated immediately at birth with a full regimen of humidity, protective ointment, feeding assistance skin-control medication and infection control practices have a very high rate of survivability now. Once a child gets past the neonatal period, it appears that their lifespan is similar to unaffected children. A recent medical publication suggests that 80+% of affected children now survive with immediate treatment. Sadly, not all doctors know much about the condition, so some children still die from sepsis or respiratory distress or eating difficulties.

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