Wednesday, August 05, 2009
Joseph Carey Merrick (5 August 1862 – 11 April 1890) was an Englishman who became known as "The Elephant Man" because of his physical appearance caused by a congenital disorder. Because of his condition, he would garner the sympathy of Victorian Britain. He has often been incorrectly called John Merrick.
Learn more about Joseph Carey Merrick, free from josephcareymerrick.com. Joseph Merrick was born to Mary Jane Potterton and Joseph Rockley Merrick. Because of an error made by Sir Frederick Treves in his book, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences, Merrick is sometimes erroneously referred to by the name John Merrick. He was the eldest of three and had a younger brother and sister. In an autobiographical note which appeared on the reverse side of his freak show pamphlet, Merrick mentions that his deformity began developing at the age of three with small bumps appearing on the left side of his body. His mother died when he was 12. According to family accounts, she was physically disabled as well. His father remarried, but his stepmother did not want young Joseph. Obliged to earn a living by selling goods on the street, Merrick was constantly harassed by local children. Unable to bring home a profit and tired of fighting with his stepmother, Merrick left home.
Twice ending up in the Leicester Union workhouse, Merrick was unemployable for most of his life. On 29 August 1884, he took a job as a sideshow performer where he was treated decently and earned a considerable sum of money. At one point during his sideshow career, Merrick was exhibited in the back of an empty shop on Mile End Road in London (now called the London Sari Centre), where he was seen by the physician Frederick Treves (later knighted). As Treves recalled decades later in his memoirs, he gave Merrick one of his business cards in the event that Merrick would be willing to submit to medical examination. The two men then went their separate ways. When sideshows were outlawed in the United Kingdom in 1886, Merrick traveled to Belgium to find work. There, he was mistreated and ultimately abandoned by a showman, who stole Merrick's savings of £50 (worth approximately £3,900 in 2007 currency.
After making his way back to London, Merrick inadvertently caused a disturbance in Liverpool Street train station. Suffering from a severe bronchial infection and hampered by his deformities, Merrick was barely able to speak intelligibly. However, he had kept Treves' business card, and Treves was duly summoned by the authorities. In his role as physician at London Hospital, Treves arranged for Merrick to be given permanent quarters there. Merrick thrived in these circumstances.
He became something of a celebrity in Victorian high society. Alexandra of Denmark, then Princess of Wales and later Queen Consort, developed a kindly interest in Merrick, leading other members of the upper class to embrace him. He eventually became a favorite of Queen Victoria. However, Treves later commented that Merrick always wanted, even after living at the hospital, to go to a hospital for the blind where he might find a woman who would not be repelled by his appearance. In his final years, he found some solace in writing and visiting the countryside.
In the summer of 1887, he spent some weeks at the Fawsley Hall estate, Northamptonshire. Special measures were taken for his journey, and he was forced to travel in a carriage with blinds drawn to avoid attracting attention. He greatly enjoyed his time away from urban London, made many new friends and collected wild flowers to take back with him to London. He visited again in 1888 and 1889. He was cared for at the hospital until his death at the age of 27 on 11 April 1890, apparently from the accidental dislocation of his neck due to its inability to support the weight of his massive head in sleep. Merrick, unable to sleep reclining due to the weight of his head, may have tried to do so in this instance, in an attempt to imitate normal behavior. The coroner at his inquest was Wynne Edwin Baxter, who had come to prominence during the notorious Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 when he had likewise presided at the inquests of several of the victims.
Merrick's preserved skeleton remains in the pathology collection at the Royal London Hospital. While his remains have never been on public display, there is a small museum focused on his life, which houses some of his personal effects and period Merrick memorabilia.