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.