Ralph Albert Krooner was born in Montpelier, Vermont in 1888 and he owed much of his fictitious and show-worthy back story to the long-discredited medical theory of maternal impression.
The theory of maternal impression was once a popular phenomenon that attempted to explain the existence of birth defects and congenital disorders. The theory stated that an emotional stimulus experienced by a pregnant woman could influence the development of the fetus. According to Ralph, his pregnant mother was traumatized by a stampeding group of elephants. The rampaging circus elephants allegedly killed five men, and injured twenty-one. Ralph’s mother purportedly witnessed the carnage and was so affected by the episode that, four month later, her son was born into the world with an elephantine hide rather than supple skin.
The entire story is, of course, a complete fabrication and taken almost verbatim from the promotions associated with Joseph Merrick. When Ralph was born, Merrick was already living in London hospital and had left his career as an exhibit far behind. Sir Frederick Treves, physician and friend to Merrick, published his book The Elephant Man and other Reminiscences in 1923, which is around the time Ralph began his 30 year career exhibiting himself in carnival sideshows.
Ralph’s condition was unique during his time and was certainly not the ichthyosis (alligator skin) that many other strange-skinned performers had. Until fairly recently his condition was a complete mystery but recent events, like this one in Eastern Europe, have shed some possible light on his affliction.
Most recently an Indonesian fisherman named Dede has come to public attention. He has, what appears to be, a much more serious version of Ralph’s condition likely made much worse by decades of medical neglect.
The cause of Dede’s tree-like appearance was discovered by Dr Gaspari of the University of Maryland. Medically he has little more than the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), a fairly common infection that usually causes small warts to develop on sufferers. However Dede also has a rare genetic fault that impedes his immune system, meaning his body is unable to contain the warts.
It is quite possible that Ralph possessed a similar genetic impediment, but was able to keep his condition in check with routine soakings, filings and treatment.
The eventual fate of Ralph is currently unknown however a Ralph Albert Krooner passed away in Tampa, Florida in 1952.
image: courtesy of Quasi-Modo.net