The times and tribulations of The Elephant Man, Joseph Carey Merrick, have long been the subject of books, films and theatre. As a result, ‘The Elephant Man’ is without a doubt the most famous human prodigy of all time. His story garnered the sympathy of Victorian England and after the span of one hundred years, his plight remains no less heart wrenching or inspiring.
Joseph Merrick was born on August 5, 1862 in Leicester to Mary Jane and Joseph Rockley Merrick. He had a younger brother and sister and was completely normal until the age of three.In an autobiographical note which appeared on the reverse side of his freak show pamphlet, Merrick noted that his deformity first manifested with small bumps appearing on the left side of his body. By the time he was 12, and his mother passed away, Joseph’s deformities were severe. When his father remarried, his stepmother expelled him from the house and young Joseph began struggling not only against his deformity, but starvation and homelessness as well.
For a time, Joseph Merrick attempted to earn a living by selling door-to-door and on the street. Despite hiding his face behind a burlap mask, Merrick still endured the constant harassment of local children and many adults. His sales attempts were futile and he eventually ended up in the Leicester Union workhouse.
Victorian workhouses were not friendly places. They were akin to prisons, where the unemployed and unemployable toiled in the most unwanted laborious tasks of the era. Due to his progressing deformity, Joseph was soon unable to manually work at all and on August 29, 1884 he took a job as a curiosity attraction.
Contrary to film accounts, Merrick was well treated as an exhibit and well paid for his time. While on exhibit on Mile End Road in London, now the London Sari Centre, his path first crossed with Dr. Fredrick Treves. Treves, who would later chronicle and befriend Merrick, gave him one of his business cards after Merrick politely declined an examination. When human curiosity exhibits were outlawed in the United Kingdome in 1886, Merrick travelled to Belgium for work. There he was indeed mistreated and ultimatly robbed and abandoned by his promoter. He also contracted a severe bronchial infection further complicated by his deformities.
Upon his return to London, Merrick was the involved in a disturbance at Liverpool Street train station when his masked appearance and twisted body caused hysteria. Merrick was unable to speak due to his bronchial infection but had retained the business card of Dr. Treves, which he presented to authorities. Treves was quickly summoned from the London Hospital and soon arranged for Merrick to be given permanent quarters in the hospital.
It was during this time that Joseph Merrick thrived.
Despite a living in constant physical and emotional pain, The Elephant Man possessed an indomitable spirit. He quickly became the subject of much public sympathy and something of a celebrity in Victorian high society. Alexandra, then Princess of Wales and later Queen Consort, demonstrated a kindly interest in Merrick, leading other members of the upper class to embrace him. He eventually became a favourite of Queen Victoria. However, Treves later commented that Merrick always wanted, even after living at the hospital, to go to a hospital for the blind where he might find a woman who would not be repelled by his appearance and love him. In his later years, he found some solace in writing, composing remarkable heartfelt prose and poetry.
In the summer of 1887, Merrick spent time vacationing at the Fawsley Hall estate, Northamptonshire. Special measures were taken for his journey there as he was forced to travel in a carriage with blinds drawn. Merrick enjoyed his time away from urban London greatly and collected wildflowers to take back with him to London. He visited Fawsley Hall again in 1888 and 1889.
Joseph Merrick was cared for at the hospital until his death at the age of 27 on April 11, 1890. He died from the accidental dislocation of his neck due to its inability to support the weight of his massive head in sleep. Merrick, unable to sleep reclining due to the weight of his head, may have tried to do so in this instance, in an attempt to imitate normal behaviour.
Joseph Merrick was originally thought to be suffering from elephantiasis. In 1971, Ashley Montagu suggested in the book The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity that Merrick suffered from neurofibromatosis type I, a genetic disorder also known as von Recklinghausen’s disease. NF1 is still strongly associated with Joseph Merrick in the mind of the public; however, it was postulated in 1986 that Merrick actually suffered from Proteus syndrome, a condition which had only been identified in 1979.
As it stands, we don’t know exactly what Merrick suffered from but many people still mistakenly refer to his condition as elephantiasis.
Merrick’s preserved skeleton was previously on display at the Royal London Hospital. While his remains can no longer be viewed by the public, there is a small museum focused on his life, which houses some of his personal effects and period Merrick memorabilia.
Note: While Joseph Merrick is better known as John Merrick, it is not his birth name. Sir Fredrick Treves recalled the name as such in his memoirs. It is unclear if Treves recalled details incorrectly or if Joseph Merrick went by John.