Who was Joseph Merrick?
Joseph Carey Merrick was a disfigured English man who became famous as the Elephant Man when he started working as a professional ‘freak’ in the late19th century. However, his health deteriorated soon after and he stayed at the London Hospital for the remainder of his life. Born in Leicestershire, Merrick grew at a normal rate up until the age of five. Soon after, his skin and muscles started showing abnormal growth, and the symptoms weren’t attributed to any known disorder. His head drastically increased in size with his skin started sagging across his head and face. His jaws were completely deformed, which made his facial expressions stunted and also inhibited his vocal activities. His hands and legs were deformed as well. Doctors initially assumed it to be a case of neurofibromatosis, but he was later diagnosed with Proteus syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. Merrick’s unconventional life has been a source of wonder and speculation to many. He was initially confined to a workhouse that he escaped to join a freak show. He was then discovered by the physician, Frederick Treves, who goaded him into getting admitted to the London Hospital. An official letter looking for the cause of his deformity made him famous. However, he remained undiagnosed until his death and died at the age of 27 in his sleep due to asphyxia.
Childhood & Early Life
Joseph Merrick was born on 5 August 1862 to Joseph Rockley Merrick and Mary Jane. He was born healthy and showed no signs of disorders. He had three siblings who died early due to airborne diseases and some deformities.
It is recorded that his symptoms appeared when he was five. His skin started resembling that of an elephant in texture and color and his lips inflated disproportionately. His hands grew into two different sizes, while his feet became quite large. Merrick’s family believed that his deformity was caused due to an elephant fright experienced by his mother when she was pregnant with him.
Merrick too believed that his mother’s emotional distress was the cause of his condition. He also suffered from a hip injury that rendered him lame. His mother died within a few years of his birth, and his father remarried.
Merrick attended school but left it at the age of 13. He would repeatedly run away from home as he wasn’t treated affectionately by his stepmother or father, but he returned home each time. He later found work at a factory, but his deformities worsened and prevented him from doing his job, thus leaving him unemployed.
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Merrick’s father got him a hawker’s license so that he didn’t remain a burden. The license allowed him to sell various items door to door. However, his facial malformations stunted his speech and customers were shocked by his appearance. He failed in this job and was rebuked by his father. After this, he left home permanently in 1877.
He entered the Leicester Union Workhouse in December 1879 after failing again as a hawker in Leicester. His face was operated upon to remove the protrusions that were preventing him from eating and talking. The doctor, Clement Bryan, removed a large part of the mass to ease his discomfort.
Wanting to escape the workhouse, Merrick decided to work as a ‘freak’ show attraction in 1884. Sam Toor, a music hall owner, hired him and formed a traveling group to exhibit him. He was named the ‘Elephant Man’ and described as ‘Half-man and half-elephant.’
He was exhibited across the Midlands and finally sent to London. Tom Norman displayed him at an empty show in Whitechapel Road where he placed Merrick in a bed with curtains drawn. He would guide the audience throughout the exhibition.
The shop was near the London Hospital and attracted many medical students, including Reginald Tuckett and Frederick Treves. Treves, first horrified at the sight, wrote later to ask him to visit the hospital for an examination. Merrick wore a hood and go to the hospital.
Treves began an examination, recording every aspect of Merrick’s condition, noting down every little wart and malformation. He concluded that, despite many abnormalities, Merrick was in good health. Joseph Merrick was also presented in front of the Pathological Society of London.
Soon, the atmosphere in Britain changed and such exhibitions were now deemed indecent. The show was closed and Merrick decided to go on the road with Sam Roper across Europe, hoping to earn money there. However, he wasn’t successful and returned to London.
Unemployed, homeless, and inarticulate, Merrick sought assistance from Treves. He was taken to the London Hospital, admitted there and fed in an isolation room.
At London Hospital
Treves’s curiosity could be fully explored with Merrick’s residency at the hospital. While Treves explored Merrick’s body, he was taken care of by the nurses. However, the concern about his long-term stay arose.
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Francis Carr Goom, the chairman of the committee, wrote a letter to The Times, seeking suggestions. This letter inspired many to offer donations and the committee decided to allow Merrick stay at the hospital permanently. He was moved to a room in the basement, keeping his requirements in mind.
He gradually settled there. Treves, who had begun to understand him, visited him daily. The duo soon became friends. Upon realizing that he was depressed, Treves introduced him to a pretty woman. This was the first time Merrick was greeted with a smile by a woman and he regained his confidence.
Treves tried to help him lead as normal a life as possible. He was constantly visited by famous celebrities, including Princess Alexandria. He would often correspond with many people through letters and send them his crafts.
In his final years, he travelled across the countryside on a holiday and remained a happy traveler despite increasing trouble with his motor functions. He died on 11 April 1980 and the death was ascribed to asphyxia.
Treves dissected the body and kept samples of them, but they were lost during the Second World War. However, his skeleton remains with the Royal London Hospital.
Treves published ‘The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences’ in 1923, detailing his interactions and experiences with Merrick. It remains the most referred source by scholars to understand Merrick’s life.
Merrick’s medical condition attracted academic curiosity as his disorder was rare and undiagnosed. The most accepted explanation is the one put forth by Michael Cohen and J. A. R Tibbles, stating that he suffered from Proteus syndrome.
An attempt from BBC to discover his lineage and study his DNA didn’t find much success, and the tests didn’t reveal any new information.
There are several studies and books dedicated to him, including Ashley Montagu’s ‘The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity’ (1971), and Michael Howell and Peter Fords’ ‘The True History of the Elephant Man’ (1980).
He has also been characterized in the play ‘The Elephant Man’ by Bernanrd Pomerance; a movie directed by David Lynch titled, ‘The Elephant Man’ became a hit and received eight Academy Award nominations.
The Malthouse Theatre commissioned a play about Merrick’s life called, ‘The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man’ that premiered in August 2017.
Recently, a book titled, ‘The Life, Times, and Places of the Elephant Man’ by Joanne Vigor-Mungovin provided illuminating details about his family and tried to offer a different perspective from previous books about his life.