Who was Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man?


NIA JONES looks behind the dark and murky world of the Victorian sideshow to reveal its most famous son, Joseph Merrick, aka The Elephant Man

THE Victorian hoi polloi loved nothing more than a trip to a travelling fair’s side shows, alongside exotic caged animals were dimly lit tents featuring freakish spectres behind heavy curtains.

Joseph Merrick aka The Elephant Man
Joseph Merrick aka The Elephant Man

These freak shows are considered exploitative and cruel today, but in reality they enabled outcasts to make a living and attain some dignity, something they would never be able to do in usual society.

One man synonymous with the Victorian freak show is Joseph Merrick (often incorrectly referred to as John Merrick), the so called Elephant Man.
His agent Tom ‘The Silver King’ Norman would preach proudly to his attraction visitors:

“Ladies and gentlemen I would like to introduce Mr Joseph Merrick, half man and half elephant.

Before doing so I ask you please to prepare yourselves—Brace yourselves up to witness one who is probably the most remarkable human being ever to draw the breath of life. Not here to frighten you but to enlighten you.”

John Hurt as Joseph Merrick, incorrectly called John Merrick, in the film The Elephant Man
John Hurt as Joseph Merrick, incorrectly called John Merrick, in the film The Elephant Man

Physicians were not able to decipher exactly what Joseph Merrick’s condition was for many years, but it is now believed that he suffered from a severe form of Proteus Syndrome, a rare congenital disorder which causes an excess growth of skin, bone and tissue.

Joseph Carey Merrick was born in Leicester to Mary Jane and Joseph Rockley Merrick in 1862.

At the age of two he began to display symptoms of an unknown condition, by the time he was a teenager large tumours had grown over his body and head, his skin turned bumpy and his limbs became oversized.

Life was hard for the young Joseph, continually bullied by other children; his mother would always protect him from the taunts.

Sadly, his mother died of pneumonia just before Joseph turned 11; his father soon remarried and his step mother Emma was far from kind and understanding towards Joseph’s condition; he was soon taken out of school and worked in a cigar factory.

Due to his deformed right hand he had to give up his factory job, his father then helped him obtain a Hawker’s licence so he could sell goods door to door, but with his rapidly distorting appearance, slurred speech and struggles to walk due to hip problems and scoliosis of the spine; fulfilling his quota for the day was virtually impossible.

Subsequently beaten for failing he became unable to cope with the continuing brutality and eventually fled his family.

After a spell in Leicester’s Union Workhouse Joseph got in touch with entrepreneur Sam Torr, after this he was part of various travelling freak shows, known as ‘the Elephant Man’ with Tom ‘The Silver King’ Norman.
Ending up in Whitechapel Road, East London; in a show across the road from the London Hospital, Dr Frederick Treves a prominent anatomist and surgeon took an interest in him.

Freddie Jones as a cynical showman in The Elephant Man, the dramatised life of Joseph Merrick
Freddie Jones as a cynical showman in The Elephant Man, the dramatised life of Joseph Merrick

Joseph would spend the rest of his days at Bedstead Square, a private wing of the London Hospital, treated kindly, with dignity and held in high regard by hospital staff, using his time to read books, make intricate card models and weave wicker baskets.

He was known to London high society circles and was visited by Alexandra, Princess of Wales many times; he even visited Theatre Royal Drury Lane to see a pantomime.

A seemingly intelligent, sweet and gentle young man he often ended his correspondence with a very appropriate quote adapted from “False Greatness’ by Isaac Watts:

“Tis true my form is something odd,
But blaming me is blaming God;
Could I create myself anew
I would not fail in pleasing you.
If I could reach from pole to pole
Or grasp the occan with a span,
I would be measured by the soul;
The mind’s the standard of the man.”

Joseph died in his sleep on the April 11, 1890 aged 27; his skeleton is preserved for research at the Royal London Hospital Medical College to this day.


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