A Brief History of the Elephant Man

The following article appears in the current October/November issue of History Magazine.

Laura Grande looks at the short life of Joseph Merrick, London’s most famous sideshow performer.

“Ladies and gentlemen …with your indulgence, I would like to introduce Mr. Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. Before doing so, I ask you please to prepare yourselves. Brace yourself to witness one who is probably the most remarkable human being ever to draw the breath of life”.

~Tom “The Silver King” Norman, 1884~

The large canvas draped outside Michael Geary’s greengrocer shop at 123 Whitechapel Road featured the grotesque illustration of a man in the midst of transforming into an elephant. Paired with the description, “The Great Freak of Nature: Half-a-Man and Half-an- Elephant”, professional showman Tom “The Silver King” Norman knew he had the upper hand over all the other sideshow novelty acts performing in London in November of 1884.

The image had the desired effect, drawing in numerous patrons hoping to catch a glimpse of the deformed man. Among the curiosity-seekers was a young surgeon, Dr. Frederick Treves, who was employed at the Royal London Hospital across the street from the little shop. Treves paid two pence to Norman, requesting a private viewing of The Elephant Man. Norman, ever eager to earn quick cash on the side, readily consented.

The scene that followed was later recorded by Treves in his 1923 book, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences. Although his account is often wrought with embellishments and sentimentality, the effect is nonetheless powerful. Treves was led into the darkened shop, with only the glow of the blue-flame gas burner to light the way. Treves noticed a red curtain, suspended by a cord, hanging across the length of the floor. Without warning, Norman pulled the curtain back to reveal the Elephant Man.

The young man was hunched on a stool with a brown cloak draped across his shoulders, looking “the very embodiment of loneliness”. Treves recalled Norman yelling at the man to stand up, “speaking as if to a dog”. The Elephant Man slowly rose and turned around, showing Treves the cauliflower-like growths and masses of bony material that made up his form. “At no time had I met with such a degraded or perverted version of a human being”, Treves later wrote in his Reminiscences.

The Elephant Man was covered from head to toe in tumors and scaly skin. His head was abnormally large, with thick skin folds hanging off the back of his skull. The tumors pressed down so hard on the right side of his face, that his eye was almost completely swollen shut. He was diminutive in stature, being not much taller than five feet, and had a crooked spine, swollen left hip and clubbed feet, forcing him to shuffle instead of walk. Growths hung off the rest of his body, while many of the tumors were covered in warts. His right arm hung limp at his side; his fingers five inches thick and his entire arm misshapen, resembling a club. It was difficult for the Elephant Man to talk, due to the tumors protruding from his mouth, and his speech was often incomprehensible.

Upon closer inspection, the only thing that appeared normal to Treves was the Elephant Man’s left arm. It was the size and shape of the average man’s, with dainty fingers and smooth skin. Treves was instantly drawn to this medical oddity, aspiring to learn everything he could about the mysterious Elephant Man.

Joseph Carey Merrick was born in Leicester on 5 August 1862, the eldest of three children born to Joseph Rockley Merrick and his wife, Mary Jane. Joseph was born healthy, with no visible abnormalities. However, by the time the infant was 21 months old, Mary Jane began noticing growths on Joseph’s face, including a thick, tumor-like mass that protruded out of his mouth, making it impossible for the baby to close his jaw. It would be this particular deformity that would later earn Joseph the stage name, Elephant Man, as the mass resembled an elephant tusk. As the years went by, the child’s deformities progressively worsened. Mary Jane, herself a cripple, was at a loss as to what to do and resorted to shielding her son from public life. While the next Merrick son, William Arthur, was born healthy, a daughter, Marian, was born a cripple like her mother. Mary Jane was overwhelmed with caring for two sickly children and, when Joseph was 12, she died after a brief illness.

His father quickly remarried and Joseph’s stepmother consid- ered him a useless nuisance due to his inability to contribute to housework. She convinced Joseph’s father to send him to the Leicester Union Workhouse, where he would toil off and on for the next few years, completing menial tasks and suffering verbal abuse at the hands of the nurses and other inmates. He would sometimes travel to stay with an uncle; however, he always returned to the workhouse when he needed money.

In August of 1884, when he was 22-years-old, he was discovered by the sideshow manager Tom Norman, “The Silver King”. Suddenly, Merrick was making more money than he’d ever imagined, earning approximately 50 pounds, a generous sum, which was in stark contrast to the meager one pound income most families earned in the same time frame. For the first time since his mother’s death 10 years previously, Merrick was well- treated. Norman never hedged on payments to his performers and The Elephant Man was an instant success upon his arrival in London that year. Merrick even penned a brief autobiography so that Norman could use it in a pamphlet advertising his show. Despite Treves’ later accusations that Merrick was mistreated by Norman, no hard evidence supports his suggestions. Norman’s supporters claimed that Treves’ charges were little more than baseless slander.

However, by the mid-1880s, sideshows and traveling circuses were on a gradual decline, as moral outrage over the supposed exploitation of the performers reached a fever pitch. Police patrolled the streets, handing out fines to anyone who dared to charge a fee to look at one of the sideshow freaks. Norman sold Merrick to a traveling performance manager in 1885; however, this new manager, known only as Mr. Ferrari, abandoned him in Belgium the following year when a public outcry over the Elephant Man’s deformities threatened to derail Ferrari’s show and put it out of business. With less than 50 pounds of savings left to his name, Merrick made his way back to London by ship and train, his face shrouded by a large black mask and cap. His arrival at the Liverpool Street train station on 24 June 1886 was not the sort of homecoming Merrick sought.

Due to his mask and the fact that he walked with a cane, he was harassed by locals who tried to pull off his mask. When the police intervened, they found Merrick babbling to himself in a corner, shielding his face. On his person, they found a worn-out business card with the name of Dr. Frederick Treves on it. Although two years had gone by since he last saw him, Treves never forgot the Elephant Man and willingly took him in.

Treves used his connections at the Royal London Hospital to secure Merrick his own basement apartment on the grounds. This enabled Treves to check in on Merrick every day, while giving the former sideshow performer his own privacy. In his spare time, Merrick developed hobbies he’d never previously been able to pursue. He enjoyed building and painting cardboard structures (which he would give to the nurses as gifts) and reading (Jane Austen’s Emma being a particular favourite). Merrick also developed a keen sense of fashion and Treves would sometimes treat him to a new suit or a grooming kit. Treves also took him to the opera, where Merrick enjoyed the theatre from a sheltered private box. Merrick even had the honor of meeting with Princess Alexandra of Wales and Queen Victoria.

Treves recalled that Merrick seemed content in those final years, writing in his Reminiscences that, “the one thing that always struck me as sad about Merrick was that he could not smile. He could weep, but he could not smile”. Despite his physical deformities, Merrick had a sharp intellect and enjoyed the company of Treves and his high-society friends.

On 11 April 1890, at the age of 27, Merrick was found dead in his bed by one of the hospital nurses. He was discovered lying on his back. Due to his physical condition and the weight of his head, Merrick was supposed to always sleep sitting up, with his head bent forward and propped on his knees. It is unknown whether Merrick intentionally lay down on his back that night or whether he’d accidentally tipped over in his sleep. An autopsy later confirmed that Merrick died of a dislocated neck, due to the weight of his skull, and likely died instantly.

His body has been previously displayed at the Royal London Hospital, the place he once called home, although it has since been moved into a private quarter of the hospital. However, Merrick’s belongings are still on public display, including his mask, cap, a cardboard structure he made of a church and the only surviving copy of his handwriting.

In 2003, a DNA test was done on samples of Merrick’s hair and bones to determine which disease ailed him throughout his short life. It was often speculated that he suffered from elephantiasis (a rare disorder caused by parasitic worms, which results in deformities). However, the majority of scientists and medical professionals agree that Merrick may have had Proteus Syndrome, which attacks the tissues and nerves in the human body. It’s not a genetic condition and is so rare, that there are only approximately 100 known recorded cases in the world.

Since the publication of Treves’ much-debated account in 1923, the Elephant Man has endured in popular culture as a sym- pathetic figure portrayed in dozens of plays, books and films. Interpretations of Merrick’s life often suggest he was a refined and gentle man trapped in a grotesque body, while Treves is often elevated to a (some would argue undeserved) heroic status.

Whether exhibiting himself on stage with “The Silver King” or studied by Dr. Treves and his colleagues, Merrick never had full control over how his body was viewed. Yet, even in death, Joseph Merrick is the embodiment of how human dignity can overcome life’s hardships.

Photo Captions:

(Image One): Joseph Merrick (the Elephant Man) photographed in 1889 while being studied by Dr. Frederick Treves. The photograph was published in the British Medical Journal on 19 April 1890.

(Image Two): Joseph Merrick in 1889. This photograph was published in the British Medical Journal on 19 April 1890.

(Image Three): Dr. Frederick Treves in an undated photo. Treves used his connections to secure Merrick a permanent room in the Royal London Hospital.

Sources and Suggested Reading:

• Howell, Michael and Peter Ford. The True History of the Elephant Man. London: Allison & Busby Limited, 1980. Reprinted in 2006.

• Montagu, Ashley. The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity. Acadian House Publishing, 1971. Reprinted in 2001.

• Treves, Frederick. The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences. London: Cassell and Company, Ltd., 1923.

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2 Responses to A Brief History of the Elephant Man

  1. Rina says:

    I always wanted to read a book on Joseph Merrick so I will definitely have a look at your suggestions. I also plan to watch the film by David Lynch soon. I think it is based on Treves’ memoirs, right?

    • Laura Grande says:

      Yeah, Lynch’s film is based on Treves’ memoir, therefore the film is a little romanticized and overly sentimental. Still powerful, nonetheless. John Hurt is amazing as Joseph Merrick.

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