The sad story of Joseph Merrick – the real “Elephant Man”

 
The Elephant Man
 
 
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Joseph Merrick was born in 1862 in Leicester, England and soon became known as the “Elephant Man”. He developed a strange illness in his early childhood which made his skin thick and lumpy.

His lips enlarged and a bone mass grew on his forehead. His feet and one of his arms also enlarged. His illness was a mystery until 1986, almost hundred years after his death.

Merrick in 1889
Merrick in 1889

Joseph was born healthy and didn’t show any kind of physical disabilities. He had three other siblings of whom one died of smallpox the same year he was born, another died at the age of four of scarlet fever while the last was born with physical disabilities and died of myelitis and “seizures” at the age of 24. Joseph’s mother also had some kind of physical disability and died when he was nine years old.

By the time his mother died, Joseph had already developed his strange and inexplicable physical appearance. Once, he fell and damaged his hip which resulted in permanent lameness.

By the age of 13, he left school and due to his physical appearance he faced difficulties in finding a job. His father remarried and Joseph was forced to leave the house.

Merrick photographed in 1888
Merrick photographed in 1888

 

Merrick photographed in 1889
Merrick photographed in 1889

At the age of 17, Joseph entered the Leicester Union Workhouse where he remained for four years. In 1884 he got to Sam Torr, an English showman and asked to be exhibited. Torr accepted and arranged few people to manage Joseph, so they gave him the name “Elephant Man”.

Joseph went on a tour with the show before being exhibited in a penny-gaff shop owned by Tom Norman. The shop was just across the street from the London Hospital, so it was quite often visited by the surgeon Frederick Treves who invited Joseph to be examined and photographed. So he did, but soon Norman’s shop closed and Merrick was sent on a tour through Europe.

The shop on Whitechapel Road where Merrick was exhibited. Today it sells saris
The shop on Whitechapel Road where Merrick was exhibited. Today it sells saris

While his group was performing in Brussels, Joseph got robbed by his road manager and was left alone and penniless on the streets of an unknown city.

Fortunately, the police found him and even though he wasn’t able to communicate, they found a card of Dr. Treves in his pocket so they contacted him and Merrick was sent back to the London Hospital.

Merrick's close friend and doctor Frederick Treves in 1884
Merrick’s close friend and doctor Frederick Treves in 1884

Merrick’s illness was unknown and unseen before, so nobody knew how to cure it and neither the doctors were aware if what he had was curable or not. However, he was allowed to stay in the hospital for the rest of his life. Merrick grew close to doctor Treves who visited him every day. Moreover, many members from wealthy social circles visited him frequently.

The hospital stuff grew quite sympathetic to Merrick even though they felt uncomfortable due to his appearance and odor. Soon everyone was willing to take care of him and Treves began understanding his speech. Hospital managers asked for nourishment donations for Merrick’s health which was slowly declining and doctors weren’t able to help him.

Merrick's cap and hood
Merrick’s cap and hood

 

The only surviving letter written by Merrick
The only surviving letter written by Merrick

Merrick died in 1890 when he was only 27 years old. It was stated that the official cause of his death was asphyxia but when Treves performed an autopsy on the body, he concluded that Merrick had died of a dislocated neck.

He believed that due his condition, although Merrick had to sleep sitting because of the weight of his head, he might have tried to sleep lying on a bed “like other people”.

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His illness remained unknown until the 1986 when scientists concluded that Merrick had Proteus syndrome, a very rare congenital disorder also known as Wiedemann syndrome. This conclusion became definitive in 2003 when Charis Eng made DNA tests on Merrick’s bones and hair.