Today is the 160th birthday of Joseph Merrick. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
NAME: Joseph Merrick
BIRTH DATE: August 5, 1862
DEATH DATE: April 11, 1890
PLACE OF BIRTH: Leicester, England
PLACE OF DEATH: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Other (donated to Royal London Hospital)
BEST KNOWN FOR: Best known as “The Elephant Man,” Joseph Carey Merrick has been the subject of many medical studies, documentaries and works of fiction.
Joseph Carey Merrick was born on August 5, 1862, in Leicester, England, and was by all accounts a healthy child at birth. However, by the age of 5, he had developed patches of lumpy, grayish skin, which his parents attributed to his mother having been frightened by a stampeding elephant during her pregnancy. As Merrick grew older, he developed more severe deformities, until head and body were covered with various bony and fleshy tumors. Yet despite these infirmities, Merrick had a relatively normal childhood and attended the local school.
In 1873, when Merrick was just 11 years old, his mother died of bronchial pneumonia. Merrick would later describe her passing as the “greatest sadness in my life.” His father remarried to their landlady less than a year later, and Merrick left school to seek work, eventually finding a job rolling cigars in a factory. But within two years, his right hand had become so deformed that he could no longer do the work and was forced to leave. His father, who owned a haberdashery, attained a peddler’s license for him and sent him out to the streets to sell his shop’s wares. By this point, however, Merrick’s deformities were so extreme, and his speech so impaired as a result, that people were either frightened of him or unable to understand him, and his efforts were met with little success. When one day his father beat him severely for not earning enough money, Merrick went to live with an uncle briefly before becoming a resident at the Leicester Union Workhouse at age 17. Merrick found life in the workhouse intolerable, but unable to find any other means of supporting himself, he was forced to stay.
In 1884, Merrick decided to try to profit from his deformities and escape life in the workhouse. He contacted Sam Torr, the proprietor of a Leicester music hall called the Gaiety Palace of Varieties, and they devised a plan to secure him a spot in a human oddities show. Merrick was soon exhibited as “The Elephant Man, Half-Man, Half-Elephant” to great success in Leicester and Nottingham before eventually traveling to London that November. He wore a cape and veil to conceal his deformities in public, but was often harassed by mobs as he traveled. In London, the Elephant Man exhibit was housed across the street from the London Hospital and was frequently visited by medical students and doctors interested in Merrick’s condition.
Merrick was eventually invited by a surgeon named Frederick Treves to visit the hospital to be examined. The results of Treves’ examination showed that, by that point, Merrick’s deformities had become extreme. His head measured 36 inches in circumference and his right hand 12 inches at the wrist. His body was covered with tumors, and his legs and hip were so deformed that he had to walk with a cane. He was found to be in otherwise good health. Treves presented Merrick to the Pathological Society of London in December of that year, and asked Merrick to visit the hospital for further examination. But Merrick refused, later recalling that the experience made him feel like “an animal in a cattle market.”
By 1885, a distaste for freak shows had developed in Britain and Merrick and his managers decided to try to move The Elephant Man exhibit to Belgium. The show met with only mediocre success, however, and Merrick’s manager there eventually robbed him of his life savings and abandoned him. After finding passage on a ship back to England in June of 1886, Merrick was mobbed by a crowd at Liverpool Street Station in London and taken into custody by the police. Unable to understand Merrick, they eventually found Frederick Treves’ business card on him and took him to the London Hospital. Treves examined Merrick at the hospital and found that his condition had severely deteriorated in the previous two years. However, the hospital was considered incapable of caring for “incurables” such as him, and it seemed that Merrick would be forced to fend for himself yet again.
When the chairman of the London Hospital, Carr Gromm, was unable to find another hospital to care for Merrick, he decided to publish a letter in the The Times describing Merrick’s case and asking for help. Gromm’s letter resulted in a sympathetic public outpouring and enough financial donations to provide Merrick with a home for the rest of his life, and in 1887, several rooms in the London Hospital were converted to living quarters for him. Merrick’s notoriety also resulted in his being aided by members of the British upper class, most notably the actress Madge Kendal and Alexandra the Princess of Wales. (Future accounts of Merrick’s life depict him and Kendal interacting in person and having a deep rapport, though it’s believed that this was probably never the case. The actress’ husband, however, did visit Merrick, while Kendal herself helped raise money for Merrick’s care and sent him several gifts.)
Merrick was able to visit the theater on at least one occasion, and made trips to the countryside several times over the next few years. When he was at home, he spent his time conversing with Treves (one of the few people who could understand him) or writing prose and poetry. With the help of nursing staff, he also built an elaborate cardboard cathedral, which he sent to Madge Kendal and which would later be exhibited at the hospital.
Despite Merrick’s newfound support structure, his condition continued to worsen during his time at the London Hospital. On April 11, 1890, Merrick was discovered dead, lying on his back on his bed. Due to the size of his head, he had for his whole life slept sitting up, with his head resting against his knees. It was initially thought that Merrick had died of asphyxiation due to his head crushing his windpipe, but more than a century later it was instead surmised that he died from a crushed or severed spinal cord after his head fell back due to positioning on the bed. He was 27 years old.
After Merrick’s passing, Treves had plaster casts made of his body and preserved his skeleton, which has been kept on permanent display in the collections of the London Hospital. (It has been reported that pop singer Michael Jackson once tried to purchase Merrick’s bones but was refused by the hospital out of respect for Merrick.) Despite Merrick’s own belief that his deformities had been the result of his mother’s encounter with an elephant, the actual causes have been a subject of much discussion since his death. Initially considered to be the result of elephantiasis, the disorder is now thought to be either an extremely severe case of neurofibromatosis and/or the result of a disease known as Proteus syndrome.
The life of Joseph Carey Merrick has also been the subject of various artistic interpretations as well. In 1979, a play by Bernard Pomerance called The Elephant Man debuted on Broadway. In later productions of the play, the part of Merrick was played by the likes of David Bowie and Mark Hamill. The following year, an unrelated film of the same name was released. Directed by David Lynch and with John Hurt in the role of Merrick and Anthony Hopkins in the role of Treves, the film tells a mostly accurate version of the events of Merrick’s life. In 2014, a revival production of The Elephant Man starring Bradley Cooper brought Pomerance’s play, and Merrick’s story, back to Broadway.