The title of this week’s blog is taken from the beginning of a piece of dialogue that is repeated several times during the 1941 classic monster film “The Wolf Man.” Written by Curt Siodmak (La crise est finie) and directed by George Waggner (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), the movie stars Lon Chaney, Jr. (High Noon), Claude Rains (Casablanca), and Bela Lugosi (Dracula) among others. The full dialogue is as follows:
Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.
Two interesting asides: “The Wolf Man” was not the first mainstream Hollywood film to feature the now iconic creature. That distinction goes to the often overlooked 1935 movie “Werewolf of London.” Lon Chaney, Jr. was the only actor that played the “Wolf Man” role for Universal during the 1940s, something he expressed pride in throughout the course of his life whenever he was interviewed. Instead of waxing poetic or dismissing outright the films that have featured someone whose appearance changes with the arrival of the full moon, this piece concentrates on a particular family whose members were thought to have been real werewolves. Was this family part of a collective group of creatures that go bump in the night or just victims of an unfortunate and hereditary genetic anomaly?
The technical name for what scientists have informally labeled werewolf syndrome is hypertrichosis. There are two different types of the medical condition which causes abnormal hair growth on the human body. The first is generalized hypertrichosis, where hair grows over the entire body and the second is localized hypertrichosis, where abnormal hair growth is restricted to a particular area. At this point in time, I would imagine most if not all of you who are reading this blog are wondering why you’ve never seen a person afflicted with this condition. The reason is simple: research that has been conducted into hypertrichosis concludes that approximately only one out of every billion people who are born is likely to get this disease. There are roughly, according to the latest statistics, 6,884,700,000 people in the world today, so out of that number maybe six to seven people alive today are living with hypertrichosis. When someone is born with the affliction, public reaction throughout the centuries has varied greatly in terms of how those unfortunates have been treated by society. Some of the individuals have been treated as if they were half human and half animal; others have been relegated to a life in the circus or as part of some carnival that travels the countryside enticing people to see the “freaks” they have on hand to display; one victim of the disease, Petrus Gonzales, was even made to be a spectacle for the royal amusement of King Henri II.
Not much is known about the mother who gave birth to Petrus or about his ancestors. The little that is known is that Petrus was born in the Canary Islands. The first formal reports about his unique appearance, he looked like the predecessor for the character of Chewbacca in Star Wars, began to surface in 1557. The wolf-boy, as he was referred to, arrived in Paris that same year, and King Henri II ordered that he receive a formal education, not because the King wished to bestow kindness on the unfortunate child, but in order to prove that Petrus was a savage who was better suited for the wild than being a member of civilized society. Much to the King’s dismay, Petrus proved him wrong. Not only was he able to master the skills of a rudimentary education, but he learned how to comport himself properly, discuss topics with tact, and became fluent in Latin.
In 1573, when he was seventeen years old, Petrus found love and got married, and before the decade was out he had fathered two children with his French bride. Unfortunately for both of his offspring, one boy and one girl, they were afflicted with the same condition as their father. Instead of hiding their unusual appearances, the family embraced them and made the best of a bad situation by touring Europe where they showcased their looks for money and goods. In Munich, Germany, Duke Albrecht IV of Bavaria was so taken by the Gonzales’s that he had a portrait of the family, as well as individual portraits, painted for his private art collection. A painting of Petrus Gonzales still hangs to this day in Castle Ambras in Innsbruck, Austria. Next, in 1583, it was onto Basel, where Felix Plater a famous anatomist of his day studied the Gonzales family, and worked up a report on the father and children, which for its time was incredibly detailed. Nowhere does Plater state in his report nor is it stated in a subsequent report done by Ulysses Aldrovandi, a naturalist, who examined Tognina Gonzales, Petrus’s youngest daughter (somewhere along the way his wife and one of his children died and he fathered two additional children out of wedlock) that any of the members of the family were werewolves.
During the next several decades the Gonzales family were both seen and heard from with great inconsistency. Some of the members of the family would travel to different royal courts to entertain the nobility. Historians find it odd, considering their unique physical characteristics that more information about the Gonzales’s was not documented. In fact, those who’ve studied the life of Petrus Gonzales are not certain of how he died or when. The last time that a direct descendent of Petrus Gonzales, a Horatio Gonzales, is mentioned is in 1635 on a memorial plaque which stated the following:
“Here you see Gonzales, once famous in the court of Rome,
Whose human face was covered with hair like an animal’s.
He lived for you, Ferrari, joined to you in love,
And in the portrait he lives on, still breathing although he is dead.
In this blogger’s opinion, and that of those in the medical community of the time who studied the Gonzales’s, there is no evidence to support that they were werewolves. Sadly, they were just dealt a bad hand in terms of their looks, nothing more, and nothing less. For those of you interested in seeing images of Petrus Gonzales and his family just go to your Google search engine and type in his name, his likeness as well as that of his family appears in numerous depictions. In addition to Petrus Gonzales and his family, other people who suffer from physical abnormalities have surfaced throughout the years were thought to be of super natural origin: Julia Pastrana (The Bearded Lady); The hairy family of Burma; Fedor Jeftichew (Jo-Jo the Dog Faced Boy); and Stephan Bibrowski (Lionel the Lion-Faced Man). All of these people turned out to be merely medical anomalies. Enjoy your werewolves in books, comics, graphic novels, movies and on television shows, but don’t go looking for them in the real world because they simply don’t exist except in the imagination of those who create them to entertain you.