During the Victorian era there was no television, and no Internet (including h2g2) of which to speak, thus it was down to the general public to create their own ways of being entertained. One way in which people got their thrills was via the freak shows which travelled between counties and made money by conjuring up stories about curiosities, before the communities got to see them. Often the curiosities would be people from the general public or foreign climes who just looked different because they had a deformity, or came from another country the audience were not familiar with. Thin, fat, large or tall, even conjoined twins and people who claimed to be mermaids had a place as a curiosity and showmen such as Phineas T Barnum1 and Samuel Gumpertz had a story to tell that would not only see the showman profit but the curiosity too.
Joseph Carey Merrick2 was born on 5 August, 1862, in Leicester, England, to Mary Jane and Joseph Rockley Merrick. He had a sister Marion Eliza3 and a brother William Arthur. Merrick was born with Proteus syndrome, a genetic disease which caused, among other problems, his head to overgrow.
As Proteus syndrome was unknown during his lifetime, Merrick was left to presume that his deformity was a result of his mother being scared by an elephant during her pregnancy with him. Signs of this illness started showing when he was just two years old and continued to worsen throughout his life. His condition grew so bad that eventually it looked like big balls of flesh were bulging out all over his body, and his right arm and hand became so deformed they resembled a club.
After the death of his mother from bronchial-pneumonia Merrick lived with his father and step-mother, and earned a living working as a travelling salesman. However, it wasn't long before his step-mother issued his father with the ultimatum of throwing his son out or she would leave. Even the community which he grew up in were turning against him and taunting him so much that he would take to wearing a mask.
Merrick worked for his keep at the Leicester Union workhouse. He struggled to keep his job as he became increasingly deformed. As a last resort he joined a travelling circus managed by Tom Norman, where he became a sideshow attraction. Unlike the film's portrayal that paints his employer in a bad light, Merrick was actually treated very well as Norman's grandson Monty told the Croydon Guardian:
Merrick was shunned and vilified. He was offered the chance to be cared for and to earn a wage in the circus. My grandfather managed him in his freakshow. Merrick was well cared-for, he was my grandfather's livelihood and it was in his interest to look after him. He was safe and was with others who were the same as him. He earned a good wage and by the time he and my grandfather parted company he had amassed a few hundred pounds which was a lot of money in those days.
During a show at Mile End Road in London, Merrick met a surgeon called Sir Frederick Treves, who offered him his business card. However, it wasn't until years later that Treves and Merrick would meet again, for Merrick continued working as an attraction in freak shows. In 1886 when they were banned in England, Merrick travelled to Belgium in search of work, but was duped, lost all the money he had left and made destitute. He also began suffering from a bronchial infection which was worsened by his condition.
When Merrick finally returned to England, people became hysterical when they saw him. The authorities were called upon and he offered them the business card that Treves had given him. They took him to Whitechapel Hospital (Royal London Hospital) where they set about making plans for a permanent home for him. Many people offered assistance and money, but despite the hospital's policy of no beds for the incurables, it was decided that Merrick should be given a permanent place of residence in the East Wing of the Hospital. Here he made use of his time by writing prose, poetry and creating a church out of cards.
On hearing Merrick's story the Royal family were keen to visit him, particularly Princess Alexandra (she was also the Princess of Wales, and later Queen Consort). For some time Merrick was able to entertain visitors but it was never established whether they were genuinely interested in his welfare or just following the latest trend. From 1887 to 1889 Merrick took trips out to Fawsley Hall estate, Northamptonshire, where his friend Louisa Mary Bowater had provided him with a cottage for respite. During the journeys to and from the estate the carriage blinds were frequently drawn to shield him from prying eyes, but it meant that Merrick could not see the picturesque scenery as he passed.
Merrick longed for companionship and asked his guardians if he could be moved to a hospital for the blind, where he might find companionship and love with a woman unable to see his deformities, but it was not meant to be. Merrick died aged 27 on 11 April, 1890. It is thought he died from suffocation as he was unable to support the weight of his own head.
After Merrick died a cast was made of his body, some of his parts were preserved in formaldehyde (but they were destroyed in the war). His skeleton remains on display to scientists at the hospital.
Some of Merrick's DNA has since been used in trials to discover why he had these deformities. Originally thought to have suffered from elephantiasis, the author of The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity Ashley Montagu suggested that Merrick actually suffered from a rare genetic condition known as neurofibromatosis. Merrick's DNA was examined for the NF1 gene, but the results were inconclusive. However, in 1996 Dr Amita Sharma, a radiologist at the National Institutes of Health (USA), identified the condition as Proteus syndrome, a condition that was not registered until 1979.
Sharma says that his skeleton shows the tell-tale signs of Proteus syndrome and lacks the characteristics that would be expected of someone with neurofibromatosis. Merrick's skeleton is studded with bony outgrowths, predominantly on the right-hand side. His ring finger and femur are both enlarged, and his skull has a circumference of 91cm, compared to the 60cm typical for a man of his height.
– New Scientist
'The Elephant Man'
During 1980 the film The Elephant Man was released, starring John Hurt as Joseph Merrick. The film sets out to tell Merrick's life story, but according to Monty it misleads the audience into thinking that when he appeared in the freak shows he was not cared for. There is also an opera based on his life but this too is just a mere interpretation. For a more accurate picture it is possible to visit the Royal London Hospital Museum, where artefacts that he once owned are on display. In 2004 a plaque was erected in Wharf Street South at the Gaiety Theatre in remembrance of him.
1 One person Barnum hired was a dwarf given the name 'Tom Thumb'.
2 His Christian name was Joseph. He was nicknamed 'John' to differentiate between him and his father.
3 Marion died from mylitis, a spinal deformity, when she was just 24.