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Elephant Man, Joseph Carey Merrick

By Edited Apr 8, 2016 5 2

Not an Animal

[disturbing images]

 

Human oddities throughout history have featured in literature, art, song, and film.  Popular culture embraced many, making them enduring figures.

Over the centuries many such “different” people rose to positions of prominence and fame. Some, such as the court eunuchs of the Ottoman Empire – the keepers and guardians of the harem – were created (usually involuntarily castrated, but many submitted to the procedure to secure the position of court eunuch).  Many eunuchs, classed as “other” gendered, were allowed to overhear court intrigues (because they were not considered of any more consequence than the furniture).  Using information they learned, some rose to powerful positions as advisers or engaged in intrigues of their own.  A notorious Chinese eunuch became fabulously wealthy through extortion based on his intelligence gathering.

The celebrated castrato Farinelli (1705-1782), though, was purely self-made.  To help support his impoverished family, he submitted to voluntary castration before puberty in an era when clear male soprano voices were in great demand in opera and chorale music.  The removal of his testicles insured his voice never reached the richer baritones of a mature man; he gained wealth and notoriety not only as an accomplished singer but he was also fêted as a human curiosity.

Finally, there are those “freaks” in the world that have voluntarily created their conditions.  Any circus “Fat Lady” is a creation of herself, not subject to outside forces (unless clearly medical in origin but normally not). [Such sideshow attractions featuring the morbidly obese are rare as the United States’ population is increasingly obese itself and the “novelty” no longer exists.]  Other voluntary freaks are known as “geeks” – “The Tattooed Man”, the man who eats a light bulb, or one who drives a nail up his nasal passage or sticks long pins through his flesh are not true freaks of nature, just people working with gimmicks.     

For those whose essence was altered by a poorly dealt hand courtesy of Mother Nature, however, their life paths could be difficult.  People with various congenital disfigurements (missing arms or legs or having extra limbs) or hermaphrodites found a poor fit in “normal” society.  But they were always welcomed in side-show exhibits. 

The renowned “Ape Woman”, Julia Pastrana (1834-1860), was a hirsute Mexican Indian who suffered from hypertrichosis as well as a disfiguring oral condition that gave her a jutting jaw and enlarged, swelling lips.  However, she took advantage of her physical deformities and earned her way as a living exhibit and entertainer for the last six years of her short life.  She even made money after she was dead – her husband displayed her embalmed body and that of their dead newborn son to paying audiences for years.  And while Julia was famous – and popular – during her life time, she is largely forgotten today.

Beyond doubt, the most famous “freak” of all time, one who is not forgotten and who nearly everyone knows something about, was the so-called “Elephant Man” Joseph Carey Merrick.  His

Joseph Carey Merrick (front view)
physically distorted appearance was caused purely by medical conditions, and he suffered from multiple disorders. 

The main underlying problem for The Elephant Man – the one that caused his deformed appearance with bony enlargements of his skeleton and causing large fibrous tumors hanging pendulously from over his brow, on his back, right arm, and buttocks – was an extreme form of neurofibromatosis type I (“von Recklinghausen disease” as it was once termed, first described by its namesake in 1882).  Secondarily, he was determined to have what is now called Proteus Syndrome, a bone deforming condition that (like the Greek mythical figure for which it is named) causes the body’s structure to alter shape.  This also creates skin overgrowth accompanied by tumors.  The Elephant Man’s maladies progressed with age, twisting his skeleton into misshapen and painful bone leading to scoliosis and hip dysplasia. 

Later in his life, however, he found peace and contentment living out his remaining days under the care and protection of a London surgeon, Dr. Frederick Treves, in a cloistered environment.

Elephant Boy
When Merrick was born on August 5, 1862, in Leicester, England, he displayed no signs of ailment (though at birth an unusual freckling of the skin is an indicator of von Recklinghausen disease, probably unnoticed by his parents).  Two other children arrived after Joseph: a boy born in 1866 who died of scarlet fever at age four and a physically disabled daughter born in 1867 (who died in 1891).

Joseph’s lips developed swellings just shy of his second birthday.  He began showing the pachyderm-skin patches (that later blossomed into giant cauliflower-shaped tumors whose color and texture earned him the moniker “The Elephant Man”) when he was five.  His skin took on a thick, lumpy texture, his lips enlarged more (peeling back from his gums in a strange way), and a bony bulge formed on his forehead.  He developed a small protuberance on his upper lip that gradually grew, much like a small prehensile organ (or elephant’s trunk).  One of his arms and both feet became enlarged.

His father was mostly indifferent to the boy, but his mother (who had a mild physical disability) was very loving of him.  He attended school with other children, learning to read and write.  His intelligence was reported in later examinations as above average. 

[The oft-repeated story that the Merrick family explained Joseph’s condition as the result of his pregnant mother’s being knocked over and frightened by a fairground elephant is myth.  While the quaint idea that the emotional experiences of pregnant women could have a lasting physical effect on their unborn children – maternal impression – was held in England then, the “elephant origin” story was not created until later when Merrick was a sideshow freak.  The Merricks had no idea what was wrong with the boy, and the father looked upon him as a liability.]

As time wore on, Merrick’s body grew at differing rates, creating a pronounced asymmetry in his right and left sides.  His abnormal growth forced him to walk with an awkward gait; when he was 11, he fell and injured his hip very badly.  This became infected, and after the injury had healed, he was left lame for the rest of his life.  That same year, 1873, his beloved mother died of pneumonia. 

He was tormented at school as time went on, and (when he was 13) his formal schooling ended so that he could find work and help support the family (the household contained his father, himself, and his disabled sister, Marion Eliza).  Young Joseph found work as a cigar roller, a job requiring dexterity in his fingers. 

His left arm and hand were free from signs of von Recklinghausen bone and tissue damage, and it had no tumors or rough skin on it (his left hand was described later in his life as being “particularly fine, almost feminine” in form).  His condition worsened, and his right arm bordered on becoming a useless club. He lost his job as a cigar roller (though he had managed to keep the job for about 2 years) as his other hand made it impossible to be effective at his work.

His father, meanwhile, had remarried (the landlady) in 1874, and the new Mrs. Merrick was repulsed by the “elephant boy”.  Joseph’s new stepmother was a widow with two children, and she deprived him of food and other creature comforts in favor of her own children.  Merrick later wrote in an autobiographical pamphlet published in 1884:

“I was taunted and sneered at so that I would not go home to my meals, and used to stay in the streets with an hungry belly rather than return for anything to eat, what few half-meals I did have, I was taunted with the remark—‘That’s more than you have earned.’”

Door-to-Door
Merrick ran away from home at least twice, only to be found and brought back by his father.  In an age when vagrancy could mean legal and involuntary commitment to one of England’s horrid workhouses (a place where the indigent lived at state expense in squalid conditions), Merrick was desperate for work. 

In a pure spirit of self-interest, Merrick senior (wanting young Joseph working and contributing) managed to get the young teenager a hawker’s license.  Merrick took to the streets selling women’s furnishings he obtained from a haberdasher (silk handkerchiefs, gloves, etc.).  He made some money at this, but his increasingly grotesque appearance and his slurring speech (from his swelled lips and drooling, deformed mouth) made it impossible for him to flourish at the trade.  Women slammed doors in his face in terror; people began following him through the streets as he tried to peddle his wares, poking fun at him, and making nuisances of themselves. 

He did not make enough money over time to support his place in the Merrick household, however; after coming in from work one day in 1877 his father beat him severely for his lack of success that day. 

Joseph Carey Merrick left home never to return after that.

Elephant Man
Merrick took to the streets.  A sympathetic barber uncle took the homeless and broke Joseph in.  He still peddled his women’s notions door-to-door for the next two years.  But his repulsiveness finally led the commission that had issued his hawker’s license to revoke it in the public interest when it came up for renewal.  

To worsen matters, Joseph’s uncle, with two young children of his own to feed and clothe, found he could no longer afford to support his nephew.  Thus, when he was 17, Merrick – for want of anything better to do – presented himself at Leicester’s workhouse in December 1879.  After 12 weeks he signed himself out and spent two days looking for work.  Unsuccessful, he went back to the workhouse and stayed there another 4 years.

During the time he was in the workhouse, the tapering “trunk” growing from The Elephant Man’s upper lip reached a length of about 9 inches.  It not only was a visible embarrassment, causing much

Sam Torr (promotional advert)
mirth among the workhouse inmates, but it also interfered with his ability to eat properly.  A rough surgery was performed at a local infirmary in 1882 that removed most of the appendage. [By the end of his life, this growth had rebounded and was on its way to its former proportions.]

Merrick was conscientious enough to hate the idea of being on the public dole (though he barely subsisted on what was provided at the workhouse – a buggy tic mattress and spare rations, abuses and ridicule from the other 900-plus male bunkmates of the place, as well as having to work for the institution as all inmates did).  He determined to become part of the world of human novelty exhibition, something he knew he could do for money.  He wrote to a local music hall proprietor and part-time stage comedian, Sam Torr.  Torr came to the workhouse and spoke with Merrick – on August 3, 1884, Merrick left to start a career as part of a traveling show.

The name “Elephant Man” was devised, and he was billed as “Half-a-Man and Half-an-Elephant”.   Merrick was shown locally around Leicester and Nottingham, then later in London.  His management

Tom Norman (showman)
changed hands; his new handler, Tom Norman (born Thomas Noakes in 1860, d: 1930) feared Merrick’s deformities might be too horrific for him to be a successful novelty exhibit.  Regardless, he set Merrick up in a back room of an empty shop in London’s Whitechapel Road, one of 13 such “curiosity shops” Norman – a veteran “carny” – ran across London.  This shop was directly across the street from the London Hospital (founded in 1740).

He had an iron bed and a curtain for privacy.  He slept sitting up, his legs drawn up and his head planted face first on his knees.  His handler, Tom Norman, asked after the practice, and Merrick said that his head was so heavy he could not risk lying down – if he did, he would risk breaking his neck and asphyxiating. 

The Elephant Man myth truly began in this little shop.  Norman plastered the walls with posters depicting a horrible creature, half-man, half-elephant.  The pamphlet from which much of Merrick’s life story became known – The Autobiography of Joseph Carey Merrick – was printed up for sale as well (whether Merrick wrote it or not is unknown, but it does give a fairly correct story).

Paying customers were led to Merrick’s living area.  Norman would pull back the curtain so the visitors could see Merrick up close.  Norman then pattered about how Merrick got in such a condition, using the mother’s “accident with an elephant” story as embellishment.

Dr. Frederick Treves

It was in the shop in November 1884 that Dr. Frederick Treves (later “Sir”, 1853 – 1923) of the London Hospital first became acquainted, alerted by a younger surgeon of Merrick’s presence across the road, with The Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick. [For whatever reasons, Treves called him “John” in his published write-up of the case in later years.  This name was the one used in David Lynch’s excellent, poignant, and relatively accurate 1980 film, The Elephant Man.]   With his permission Treves brought Merrick over for an exam. [By this time police had already ordered Merrick’s exhibit closed in the name of public deceny; hence, he would have had nothing better to do at the time.]

Merrick’s head circumference by then was 36 inches.  His right wrist was 12 inches around, and one of his right fingers was 5 inches in circumference. His skin was covered in fibrous growths; some of the bigger ones gave off a noxious smell.  His subcutaneous skin was loosening, causing it to sag in places.  He showed advanced bone deformities in his right arm, both legs, and in his skull (where they were most pronounced).  The corrective surgery to his upper lip in 1882 had done little to help Merrick’s speech: it was slurred and almost unintelligible.

Joseph Merrick (2 side views)
His disease did not affect other parts of his body, though.  Treves noted Merrick’s left arm, though smallish, and hand were not deformed by von Recklinghausen disease.  Furthermore, his penis and scrotum were completely normal.  Though initially jumping to the conclusion that Merrick had to be “an imbecile” (a clinical term for a specific degree of mental retardation in those days) Merrick later disabused Treves of this notion through familiarity.  Despite his infirmities, Treves concluded that Merrick appeared to be in good general health. 

Merrick appeared before Treves on a few occasions.  In one of their visits Treves gave Merrick his calling card.  In another examination Treves had photographs taken of Merrick from different angles and in varying states of dress.  He gave copies of these images to Merrick who later had them incorporated into his life-story pamphlet. On December 2, 1884, Merrick agreed to stand with Treves as a lecture subject before the Pathological Society of London. 

Merrick’s presence in the hospital caused a bit of a stir among the staff during his visits, most notably the female domestics and nurses, but his presentation before the Pathological Society did not gain much publicity.  It was only remarked upon by a couple of professional periodicals. 

After spending these short respites with Treves at the hospital, Merrick told his handler Norman that he had been “stripped naked, and felt like an animal in a cattle market”.  He told Norman he did not want to go back to the hospital again for any more examinations.  He returned to his life as a novelty exhibition. Treves wrote the case up and it finally appeared in print (in The British Medical Journal, December 1886 issue, reprinted in April 1890 after Merrick died).

Masked Man
In order to go about in public, Merrick devised a sack-cloth face covering secured to an outsized hat.  The mask had one long horizontally rectangular hole cut into it allowing him to see.  The

probably undermined his intent – the hooded figure shuffling along lamely drew attention as certainly as his uncovered face would have.

As an attraction Merrick was mildly successful, though most of his money made in the Whitechapel Road location came from sales of his autobiographical pamphlet.  He managed to save his portion of the box office and other proceeds with the express hope of having enough to buy his own home one day. 

However, shortly after his latest contact with Treves, police shut down his exhibit in Whitechapel Road.  Freak show exhibitions, especially those involving such a fantastic specimen like The Elephant Man, became problematic.  Public decency was at issue – many of the shrinking violets in Victorian society could not stomach Merrick’s appearance.  Furthermore, his presence was disruptive as crowds milled around outside the exhibit, waiting their turn to get in or hoping to get a glimpse of him.  His managers back home in Leicester took him from the care of Tom Norman (who had only managed Merrick for a few weeks before forced closure) and set him up with a traveling fair instead, managed by a man named Roper.  With this group of fellow oddities Merrick made a couple of unlikely friends – two small performers working under the billing “Roper’s Midgets”. 

The Continental
General public interest in freak shows remained strong; however, civil officers grew increasingly despotic in allowing these shows to continue.  Police closed down many shows if a public outcry against a certain oddity arose, and Joseph Merrick was the most extreme oddity on the circuit (women often fainted away upon the shock of seeing him). 

The traveling fair’s operator, Roper, had enough of the unwanted attention by local authorities brought to bear by Merrick’s presence in his show.   His management group decided to send The Elephant Man abroad, assuming there would be less police harassment in Europe.  Another man took over Merrick’s management for the European tour.  However, sentiments across the English Channel were just as prudish as in England – Merrick and his group were rousted almost everywhere they went. 

Things came to a grim end for Merrick and Europe when the troupe hit Brussels, Belgium.  His new manager abandoned him, and absconded with Merrick’s life savings of £50 (roughly equivalent to somewhat over $6000 in 2013).  He scraped together train fare and made his way to Ostend (about 90 miles west on the English Channel coast).  He was refused passage on a ferry from that port, however, so he backtracked to Antwerp, Belgium (only about 30 miles north of Brussels, but about 65 miles east of Ostend).  This time he secured passage on a ship bound for England. 

He docked in Harwich in Essex, and then took a train roughly 80 miles southwest to London, arriving there on June 24, 1886.  The Elephant Man was not safely home yet, not by a long shot.

“I Am Not an Animal!”
Merrick stepped off the train in London at its Liverpool Street Station.  Unfortunately, with little money and no real place to go he was at loose ends.  He knew he could not remain in public very long as his hooded figure would certainly attract attention. 

He could go to London’s workhouse, but only for one night – he was not a London resident, and transients weren’t allowed to remain.  In Leicester (as a resident of that city), however, he would have been accepted for a longer stay at his old workhouse.  Leicester, however, was almost a hundred miles away from where he was, and he could not manage train fare.

Desperate, he accosted strangers at the station platform, but his speech was so garbled by his disfigured mouth he was unable to make himself understood.  He smelled badly, and some people managed to get a glimpse of him under his mask – they were repulsed by him, and he drew a crowd very quickly. [This scene was embellished and exaggerated in the movie, The Elephant Man, with Merrick, hobbling away from a mob, collapsing to a station bathroom floor, and shrieking and sobbing, “I am not an animal!  I am a human being!”]

A police officer entered the melee and removed Merrick to an empty waiting room.  Merrick was not only exhausted he was very ill with bronchitis.  He tried but could not make himself understood by the police.  Dr. Frederick Treves’ business card was still in his possession; police got hold of Treves and he went down to the station to collect Merrick. 

Treves admitted Merrick to the London Hospital for his bronchitis.  He was bathed and fed.  The hospital had a small isolation room standing ready in its attic; Merrick was installed there to avoid curiosity seekers and to allow him some peace.

Cause Célèbre
Treves’ first concern was that Merrick’s physical condition had deteriorated rapidly in the roughly two years since he had last seen him.  More probing physicals led him to conclude that in addition to his

Joseph Merrick (c. 1886)
crippling debilities Merrick also had a heart condition that Treves suspected would kill him in not too many years.

His 24th birthday arrived just weeks after he was admitted.  For the next five months, Joseph Merrick had better care than he had ever enjoyed in his life.  He improved dramatically over that time.  And once the hospital staff got used to him, they found he was an engaging and very gracious young man. 

Frequent bathing reduced the unpleasant smell of the excrescence, likely caused by bacterial actions in the ooze, from his larger tumors.  Treves learned to follow Merrick’s garbled speech and could converse with him comfortably. It took little time for Treves to become aware that, unlike his earliest beliefs, Joseph Merrick was not intellectually sub-standard or retarded.  And still more pictures of Merrick were taken (most of these have survived and have been reprinted many times).

Treves wanted to keep Merrick indefinitely as a ward; however, the hospital was not equipped or funded to care for him long term.  Efforts to find a hospital better suited to take Merrick in were fruitless – none would accept him.  Finally, Francis Carr Gomm, the chairman of the London hospital committee, directed a letter to The Times.  It was an open letter to the public that described Merrick’s history and medical case, and it asked for any suggestions readers might have for his extended care.

The response was impressive, and letters and donations poured in.  Additionally, exposure for Merrick’s plight was gained when the British Medical Journal printed a piece about the case. With enough public money in hand, Gomm convinced the hospital’s board that Merrick should be kept there, and it was decided in favor of allowing him to stay for the rest of his life (which Treves believed was not for much longer).

In Residence
Although not the house Merrick had dreamed of buying one day, the two rooms he was moved to from his garret isolation ward were more than adequate (and certainly better than what he’d experienced otherwise in his life).  Though in the hospital’s basement, they opened onto a small courtyard (used by the staff to air out bedding and to paint the iron bedsteads).  The room was furnished, and a specially made bed to help Merrick sleep sitting up more comfortably was built for him.  A final instruction was given by Treves: there were to be no mirrors brought into the room.

Merrick could not believe, however, that this would be his home, and he questioned Treves endle3ssly and with great anxiety about when he was ot be moved on ot another place. Treves spent much time with his star patient, usually a couple of hours each Sunday, and assured Merrick he was to remain in the hospital for as long as he cared to stay. 

Merrick by then trusted Treves but only to a certain extent – he fed Treves the lie that he was an only child.  Furthermore, because Merrick always carried a picture of his mother with him – and was quick to produce it and talk about her to others – Treves was left with the wrong opinion that she had abandoned the infant Merrick (apparently in disgust at his condition, which was not in evidence at that young age).  He also spoke little of his exhibition days.

Treves discovered a surprising streak of vanity in Merrick, a seeming anachronism from a man as physically deformed as he.  One of Merrick’s most proudly displayed objects was his own left hand.  He tended to flutter it grandiosely in conversations.  He also often commented upon its beauty, inviting the sitter to admire its form and fine skin as well. Other times, very proud of some accomplishment, he fished – blatantly – for compliments. 

His comforts addressed, Merrick made a point of learning as much as he could about the outside world.  Treves was only too eager to help.  One of Merrick’s most tender issues concerned women – to him they were ethereal, mystical creatures who shrunk from him in terror.  Other than his mother he had never enjoyed a female presence. 

Treves later wrote his own book about the case, and the introduction of a womanly presence was included in that text.  He had a friend he described as “a young and pretty widow”, Leila Maturin.  He talked with her about a visit with Merrick. [This was not a solicitation for sex.  Merrick had been bored, lonely, and depressed, and Treves thought Leila’s visit would lift his spirits.].  She agreed; after proper instruction from Treves about what she could expect to see, she went to visit The Elephant Man.

Upon introduction, Leila shook Merrick’s hand – not the good, fine, left hand, but his uselessly flippered right hand.  Merrick was overwhelmed; after but a short time he started sobbing.  This first meeting was cut short, but Leila made a point of keeping in contact with Merrick and sent him gifts as well.  [The only letter left of those Merrick wrote was to Leila, a “thank you” note for a brace of grouse and a book she had sent for him.] Treves wrote later that Merrick had told him she was the first woman who ever shook his hand or smiled at him.  He was also left with the impression that Merrick’s pining for female company was so great he wished to live in an institution for the blind – there, he could meet a woman who could not see just how twisted and malformed he was.

Merrick spent his days receiving visitors (usually Treves or other house surgeons), reading, and in building models of iconic buildings of the day from card stock (which he painted and decorated – the work was very fine, done mostly with his left hand).  Merrick talked with Treves on many topics.  One of them was the home life and the houses that “normal” people lived in.  Treves took Merrick to his own townhouse where he met Treves’ wife.   

Because such a man as Joseph Merrick was not meant for the bright, exposing light of day, he was more of a night owl.  He rose in the afternoon, did his grooming and other personal hygiene and dressed.  He took walks in the small courtyard adjoining his rooms when night fell.

Renaissance Elephant Man
London’s society figures, thanks to the original plea in The Times from the hospital administration, were familiar with Merrick’s case. 

A woman who figured prominently in Merrick’s life – though they never met – was a stage actress, Madge Kendal (Margaret Shafto Robertson, 1849-1935).  During the hospital’s financial and ethical

Madge Kendal (actress, benefactress)
debates over what to do with Merrick she was his advocate.  She raised a lot of money for his continued care and had generated much public sympathy for him.  She sent him photographs of herself.  To help cultivate him, she sent a basket weaver to his rooms to teach him the skill.  She sent books to keep him occupied.  Merrick reciprocated with baskets he had made, or with card stock models, and he also wrote to her often.

As his social skills improved, Merrick gained a confidence to express himself without fear.  He worked up enough nerve to start talking with people who might pass his windows.  Bolder now, he sometimes left his rooms and wandered the hospital (he was always hustled back into seclusion by the nursing staff who were afraid he would upset the other patients with his appearance).

The engineer who had customized Merrick’s rooms to suit his special needs had a son, Charles Taylor.  He started visiting Merrick, sometimes bringing along his violin and playing for awhile.

The hospital expanded with two new buildings on its grounds, and these were finished in May 1887.  On May 21, the structures were officially dedicated and opened by attending royalty; the Prince (Albert Edward, future King Edward VII) and Princess of Wales (Alexandra of Denmark) came to open them officially.  Alexandra, after the grand opening ceremony, wanted to meet The Elephant Man.  The royal entourage trooped to his rooms.  Alexandra shook his hand and sat with him.  She left him with an autographed cabinet photograph of herself – this quickly became one of Merrick’s most prized possessions.  She later sent Christmas cards to him yearly.  The overall experience of having met Princess Alexandra delighted Merrick greatly.

As Merrick took an interest in the arts, Treves, through the quirky actress Madge Kendal, arranged for Merrick to attend a showing of a Christmas pantomime at Drury Lane’s Theatre Royal.  The party was set up in a private box; Treves and some nurses sat and watched with Merrick.  Treves wrote, “The spectacle left him speechless, so that if he were spoken to he took no heed.”  And for weeks after the show, it was the primary topic of conversation for Merrick.  He discussed the stage settings, the actors and actresses, and the action endlessly.

Perhaps, though, his greatest delights came when Treves arranged time in the English countryside, away from the hospital (on three occasions).  Securing a private rail carriage so Merrick could travel without being seen, he was transported to the estate of a noble woman for a few weeks.  On this first visit he was put up in the gamekeeper’s cottage.  He spent time walking in the nearby woods, gathering wild flowers, and enjoying to peace of Nature.  While there he made a friend with one of the estate’s casual farm laborers – this man later recollected Merrick as an “interesting and well-educated” man.

Elephant’s Graveyard
Because his problems were genetic, there was little the London Hospital could do for Merrick beyond making him comfortable.  His condition was incurable, and during his few years there he only worsened. 

Eventually, he spent most of his time in his bed or sitting in his rooms.  He was drained of energy and the demands of caring for him by the staff increased in proportion to his decline.  His facial protrusions and the twisting of his jaw worsened.  The growth from his upper lip that had been removed several years before was developing again.  His head, already massive, also grew more cumbersome.

At about 3 PM local time on April 11, 1890, one of the house surgeons called at Merrick’s rooms.  Joseph Carey Merrick was found dead, stretched out across his bed.  He was 27. 

His father – though still alive – either could not be located or declined to come to the London Hospital.  Instead, his body was formally identified by his only known next-of-kin, his barber uncle, Charles Merrick (a legal formality only – anyone off the street could have positively identified Merrick on sight).

On April 15, an inquest ruled Merrick’s death was accidental.  His certified cause of death was asphyxia (caused by the great weight of his head as he lay down).  The working theory was that

Joseph Merrick (articulated, mounted skeleton0
Merrick, living a life closer to “normal” than he ever had, took the final step of trying to sleep on his back as others did.  Treves wrote:

“He often said to me that he wished he could lie down to sleep ‘like other people’ . . . he must, with some determination, have made the experiment . . . Thus it came about that his death was due to the desire that had dominated his life—the pathetic but hopeless desire to be ‘like other people’.”

Treves took possession of Merrick’s body.  Under autopsy, he discovered Merrick’s neck was dislocated.  This, at least for Treves, confirmed his belief that Merrick caused his own death accidentally trying to sleep lying down. 

Merrick’s body was dissected, and Treves took plaster casts of his head, arms, and limbs. He also excised several skin samples and preserved them.  Unfortunately, these were lost during the Blitz of London during World War II.  The distorted skeleton was cleaned of tissue, articulated, and mounted.   It has never been publicly displayed (as Julia Pastrana’s embalmed remains were).  The hospital was renamed in 1990 to Royal London Hospital; Merrick’s skeleton is in its pathology room (not accessible to the general public). 

Elephant’s Memory
JosephMerrick’s bizarre appearance made a lasting imprint on the human landscape.  He has been written about hundreds of times.  His life and medical condition have been subjected to intense investigation in attempts to answer just what happened to make him into such a creature.

In the end, however, he was found to be nothing more than a sensitive, genteel, intelligent man with horrifically disfiguring physical problems.  He was not an animal, nor was he a monster.  He was surprisingly forgiving of those who had wronged him in life.  At his final installation in the London Hospital he made it clear to Treves that he bore no ill will against anyone; he even expressed gratitude to his former handlers for the chance to work. 

His deformities – and it can only be imagined how much pain Merrick was in – were incredible, made even clearer on his denuded skeleton.  His sternum was enlarged, spreading a few inches on both sides over his rib cage.   His right femur was thickened like a club, and his right arm was similarly enlarged.  But most telling is the twisted shape of his spine, and the yaw and pitch of his pelvis.  Walking for him must have been unimaginably excruciating.

Merrick’s demeanor while in the hospital was relatively cheerful, albeit resigned.  In his record of the case, Treves makes no mention of Merrick being a particularly difficult or whining patient; he rarely complained of anything, even though he must have been in agonies.  Furthermore, he was genuinely grateful for the gifts he received from people, and he always followed up with handwritten “thank you” notes or small gifts of his own making.  He also corresponded regularly with others, and his handwriting (in the only surviving letter) is elegant and completely legible.   

There are, of course, alternatives to Treves’ conclusions about Merrick’s death.  An obvious one is that Merrick – already reported as depressed, lonely, and bored – simply chose to end his own life.  Having told his handler, Tom Norman, in 1884 that lying down would break his neck he may have used this method to kill himself.  Treves, perhaps, could not have imagined Merrick would do such a thing and probably did not even consider it as a possibility.

An unexplored hypothesis, one more sinister than suicide, should be examined as well.  It is conceivable that one of the hospital’s staff murdered Merrick.  As was known, the demands of caring for him increased daily as his condition worsened.  It is possible an overworked or otherwise frustrated or annoyed member of the nursing or household staff simple gave his head a sharp twist in anger.  Or, easier still, all the killer would have needed to do was simply push Merrick from a standing position, knocking him to a prone position on the bed – the sharp recoil of his enlarged head would have snapped his neck under its own weight. [This occurs in some cases of “shaken baby syndrome” when an infant’s necks snaps under the strain of excessive and deliberate jerking of the baby’s body, leaving its oversized head whipping back and forth, unsupported.]

There is a little museum that is open to the public at the hospital.  It houses some of his personal effects (his hood, a card-stock model of the Mainz cathedral, among other artifacts).

Merrick’s story was revived and brought to the Broadway stage in 1979s, The Elephant Man (a Tony-award winner).  This play was great drama, and the actors who succeeded in getting the title

The Elephant Man (movie poster)
role did not wear makeup or masks.  They merely contorted their bodies as they walked about and exaggerated their speech to simulate Merrick’s disabilities (one of the men who played this part briefly was rocker David Bowie). 

Perhaps the best monument, at least in popular culture, to Joseph Merrick is David Lynch’s 1980 hit film, The Elephant Man (nominated for eight Academy Awards).  While it takes some artistic and dramatic license with Merrick’s story (especially in depicting Merrick’s London handler Tom Norman as an abusive, sadistic drunkard, which he was not), the screenplay is generally accurate and provides a good primer for those not familiar with the details of Merrick’s life as an oddity.  As a work of the cinematic arts, this movie is glorious – it is shot in crisp, contrasting black-and-white, and the period settings put the viewer into the grime and squalor of Whitechapel Road and the smarmy business of novelty exhibitions.

The crowning achievement of the film, however, is the makeup work on actor John Hurt who plays Merrick.  The prostheses used to recreate Merrick’s face and body are at the top of the makeup and special effects artist’s craft.  Secondarily, Hurt’s performance is filled with pathos – he makes Merrick

Joseph Merrick (carte de visite, c. 1889)
a likeable and sympathetic character, just as he was in life.  

Merrick’s other legacy was to bring inquiry into a strange disorder that, though incurable, at least can be diagnosed more readily thanks to his extreme case.  One of the supporting actors on the nighttime 1980s American television drama Knot’s Landing had a mild form of “Elephant Man’s Disease” (his condition was restricted to budding warty growths starting between his toes).

The memory of The Elephant Man is a living entity.  He remains a popular subject in the media, and any time any tests on his remains or other news about him develops it makes headlines (including the myth that pop singer Michael Jackson was trying to buy his bones in the 1980s – Merrick’s skeleton is not now, never has been, nor likely ever will be up for sale).

There are few people in the English-speaking world not aware of Joseph Carey Merrick in some way, even if it was only from a picture in a book.  That is quite an achievement for a horribly disfigured door-to-door salesman of women’s handkerchiefs and gloves.

*** 

The 1980 Oscar nominated classic!

Elephant Man [Blu-ray]
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Sir Frederick Treves' original take on the case

The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences
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by Vic Dillinger

Trucker Man
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Comments

Apr 10, 2013 7:02pm
weianow
interesting story. I remember watching the movie but I didn't really read much about the actual man.
Apr 12, 2013 5:27pm
vicdillinger
The movie was pretty good for what it was. If you can ever get your meathooks on a copy of Treves' book, it's fascinating. Thanks for reading.
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Bibliography

  1. Frederick Treves The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences. London: Cassell and Company, 1923.
  2. "Elephant Man." Britannica Ready Reference 2003. 2002.
  3. "Tom Norman." en.wikipedia.org. 16/02/2013 <Web >
  4. "Royal London Hospital Museum & Archives." medicalmuseums.org. 16/02/2013 <Web >
  5. "Joseph Merrick." en.wikipedia.org. 13/02/2013 <Web >
  6. "Madge Kendal." American Peoples Encyclopedia. 1963.
  7. Jack Hunter Freak Babylon: An Illustrated History of Teratology & Freakshows. London: Creation Books, 2010.

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