SUSI -The Elephant Girl

susi the elephant skinned girl

Ichthyosis finds its etymological origins in the Greek term for ‘fish’, however the majority of human exhibits afflicted with the skin condition often adopted an Alligator-themed epithet. Susi’s skin, however, was particularly coarse and cracked and the title of ‘elephant-skinned’ seemed more appropriate and illustrative.

While accounts do vary Susi was likely born in 1909 as Charlotte in the western district of Berlin. In early childhood Susi’s ichthyosis manifested aggressively and her skin quickly thickened, turned grey and cracked to visually elephantine properties. Due to the severity of her condition, Susi endured daily physical pain. Her pain was further amplified by multiple infections and illnesses as bacteria invaded the major cracks formed in her skin from even her most subtle movements. During her early years, Susi couldn’t even blink her eyes without risking life-threatening cracks.

In addition to the physical pain, Susi also endured emotional pain as she was the subject of ridicule and segregation from her peers. During the hot summer days, while the other children frolicked in the water, Susi rubbed ice over her arms in an effort to cool down as her skin condition left her unable to sweat. As the children pointed and laughed at her she would not shed a single tear. Her condition had robbed her of that ability as well.

Susi’s parents, in an effort to improve the quality of her life and to prevent infection opportunities, lathered Susi with generous amounts of oil and moisturizer on a daily basis. Susi’s parents were also highly concerned with her general appearance and took to peeling the skin from her face on a nightly basis. Both practices did wonders as her skin became suppler and her facial complexion cleared to reveal an attractive face. Susi would, however, need to repeat the daily procedures for the rest of her life.

Susi first came to the United States in 1927 as part of a troupe consisting of a giantess and a bearded lady and she made multiple subsequent visits to the US. With her manager, she emigrated to the U.S. from Germany to escape the oncoming war and moved into an apartment on New York’s west side. While living in New York, Susi often exhibited herself at Hubert’s Museum on 42nd Street and Coney Island in the 1930’s. She even worked Madison Square Garden for the Ringling show in 1967.

By all accounts Susi was a shy, introverted and quiet woman who preferred to keep a low profile and exhibit sparingly. She exhibited herself more or less locally until her manager passed away in the late 1960’s. With his death, Susi’s career and heart for the business died as well. Her last confirmed public appearance was at the Great Allentown Fair in Pennsylvania as a single attraction billed as ‘The Swamp Girl’.

By some accounts Susi retired to Germany, but most report that she passed away in New York City in 1975.

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.

19 Comments

  • Reply January 15, 2009

    Leana Jo H.

    Poor Susi. Wow! I bet nowadays her skin condition could have been treated better, with a really good dermatologist (skin doctor).

  • Reply January 17, 2009

    Vicky

    Gah, that must have been really painful, especially around the knees and elbows and stuff.
    What kind of treatments do they have for Ichthyosis these days?

  • Reply January 25, 2009

    REICHELLE

    I saw some cases of Ichthyosis using Google Image, and feel sorry for them. Too bad that there is no cure, but at least they came up with some treatments that could lessen the suffering. A documentary show here in the Philippines featured it.

  • Reply February 5, 2009

    Nicky

    It all depends on the type of ichthyosis you have, feet and hands can be extremely painful at times it varies due to climates etc. The worst thing is infection (it’s mind bending pain).

    Simple things like showering and bathing can help but also leave you feeling raw and burnt.

    Or being in hospital being stuck in a certain position for a long period of time on a hospital bed with the medical staff not taking into account the extent of your condition and having the sheets literally tear sheets of skin off your back.

    I have the worst type of EHK which is one type of ichthyosis. It’s all about attitude, there are times when you don’t want to get up cause your body is searing with pain and emotionally and mentally you can be just dead tired. Its just part of life, you just gotta keep getting up.

    If you ever meet someone with it don’t be ignorant treat them with the same amount of respect that you think you should be treated with. It may be uncomfortable at first maybe an unpleasant smell or it may not look “nice” look a little deeper.

  • Reply February 18, 2009

    Ted

    Your site has been amazing and insightful, specifically involving the facts and history of these unique people. I just have one question for you T, and it’s where do you get your info?

  • Reply February 21, 2009

    J Tithonus Pednaud

    Thank you Ted. The bulk of my information comes from pitch cards, newspapers and personal accounts.

  • Reply February 27, 2009

    doublebanker

    It defintely is a marvel!

    Daily Gif Blog, multiple posts daily!

    DB

  • Reply March 23, 2009

    Ted

    Hey J., you ever thought of releasing a documentary about these amazing people to the public? Some of these tales are perfect for dispaly in book or video form.

  • Reply April 4, 2009

    R

    I was born with Lamellar Ichthyosis in 1987 and I looked like Susi until I was 15. I use Soriatane and A LOT of moisturizers and they work miracles. This makes me sad because I know how she felt all too well.

  • Reply May 22, 2009

    sathia

    Hello T,
    I just discovered your site and I am very pleased with the amount of respect and dignity that you have shown in your accounts. Certainly, these individuals deserve it for their audacity and strength. I have a minor skin condition which has been stressing me out for the past couple years but by discovering your awesome website today, I feel much much better. I now feel that my problems are microscopic in comparison to what some of these admirable people have had to go through but yet they have had the strength and courage to live life to the fullest. This has definitely been inspirational to me. Thank you again for this beautiful site!

  • Reply May 30, 2009

    alfre

    wow, its incredible how people back in the day with rare conditions were called “freaks” this site has helped me to realized how cruel one (as a person) can be. thank you “T”

  • Reply July 20, 2009

    Christopher

    I dated a girl with Ichthyosis. There is still no cure for it. Though she did not look like this woman. She looked very normal and was attractive. She had to lather herself in a medicated moisturizer every night before bed or she would break out in scales. It was very hard for her to live with but she lives a normal life.

    Just thought I’d give some background on how its being treated today. Lots of moisturizers and some sort of yeast compound.

  • Reply August 4, 2009

    golde

    harlequin ichthyosis ?!?!
    wtf

  • Reply November 8, 2010

    Cole

    I am 22 years old and I have had ichthyosis all my life. I have to keep lotion on me at all times. It is hereditary that I have it. Every other child in my family has it. Most people who do have it it is not as severe as people think it is. Most people do not know I have it unless they touch my elbows that are really ashy. It really offends me when people think they have to treat us differently because there isn’t anything wrong with us. All it is is lack of oil glands.

  • Reply November 10, 2010

    Sara

    very interesting webpage =)

  • Reply July 5, 2011

    roy-erik andersen

    You will find Susi on the front cover of Exile On Main Street by The Rolling Stones

  • Reply March 3, 2012

    frimpong james

    susi you aa soo wonderful

  • Reply May 2, 2012

    Jenny

    I can see the pain and sadness in her eyes. My prayers go out for those like Nicky, who deal with severe types/cases of this. May your lives be blessed and your pain removed.

  • Reply August 27, 2012

    sandy

    I can’t even imagine the pain she has been. I will pray to god for her peace and like other persons who got tormented or separated by the community.. keep going you are the strength of this world and give us hope.

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