The Elephant Man


“I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!” these are the words proclaimed by John Hurt in the 1980 David Lynch classic The Elephant Man. Hurt plays Joseph Merrick, the titular Elephant Man. But who was Joseph Merrick, and what does his treatment say about care for the disabled in Victorian Britain?

Joseph Merrick was born on 5th August 1862 in Leicester, in the English Midlands. At birth there was no sign of physical disability and for the first few years no symptoms emerged. A pamphlet titled The Autobiography of Joseph Carey Merrick states that at five years old he developed “thick lumpy skin … like that of an elephant, and almost the same color.” The belief of maternal impression (that negative experiences during pregnancy would have an effect on the unborn child) was still common. An elephant had scared Joseph’s mother at a circus and the family explained this as the cause. Even Joseph believed this the reason for his disability.

Medical historians are still unsure of the conditions that afflicted Joseph. At first they believed it a combination of dermatological conditions and bone diseases, all caused by change in the nervous system. Then they argued he suffered from von Recklinghausen disease—a genetic condition where tumors grow on the nerves. In the 1980s, they believed Joseph had Proteus Syndrome, which causes overgrowth in the body. Afterwards, they speculated Joseph had suffered from a combination of both. After tracking down a descendent of Merrick’s to compare DNA samples with, the test remained uncertain. No one knows what caused Joseph’s disfigurement.

In childhood, he fell and developed a limp which affected him for the rest of his life. Joseph’s only joy came from his mother, whom he had a close relationship with and always carried a picture of her. She died when he was eight. His father soon re-married, and he experienced emotional and physical abuse from his father and stepmother.

His first job was at thirteen, where he rolled cigars, but several years later, due to his hands becoming more deformed, he had to quit. His father gave him stock from his haberdashery shop to sell from door-to-door. Now seventeen and his speech unintelligible, his appearance caused housewives to scream and slam the door in his face. One day after being beaten by his father, he decided to never return home.

Joseph’s Uncle Charles heard of his situation and offered him a home. Joseph still tried to sell products door-to-door with little success. The public so negatively viewed his appearance that when he needed to renew his seller’s license, he was refused. By now Uncle Charles had his own children and found it impossible to support Joseph too. So, around Christmas 1879, Joseph entered the Leicester Workhouse. Protrusions on Joseph’s mouth made it difficult for him to speak or eat. Surgery was necessary, it was a success, and the doctors removed a large part of the mass.

After four years in the workhouse, Joseph knew his only way out was to become “human novelty exhibition” in what we would now refer to as a freak show. He planned to use his cut of the money to buy a small house as Joseph dreamed of supporting himself. After writing to a local showman, Sam Torr, Joseph left the workhouse in 1884 to become a “travelling exhibit.” After travelling around the country, Joseph’s contract passed to a London based man, Tom Norman, who “exhibited” Joseph in a shop front in the East End. The shop on Whitechapel Road sat opposite from the Royal London Hospital. One of the senior surgeons at the hospital, Dr. Frederick Treves, noticed Joseph and asked if he could examine him. Joseph agreed. In spite of his disabilities and limp, Treves deemed Joseph to be in good health., Joseph told Treves he didn’t want any more examinations as he felt “like an animal in a cattle market.” Before Joseph left, Treves gave him his contact details.

Meanwhile, Victorian England’s attitude towards “freak shows” was changing, not only out of concern for the people featured but the disruption they caused. After the police closed the shop, Joseph’s manager sold his contract, and he went on a Continental European tour. After arriving in Brussels, the new manager stole Joseph’s life savings (around £4,900 today) and abandoned him.

Somehow Joseph made his way to Antwerp and found a ship bound for Essex. After sailing back to Britain, he boarded a train to London, and on 24th June 1886 he arrived at London Liverpool Street station. Joseph had no place to go. London workhouses could only admit him for one night, as his legal address was still in Leicester, almost 100 miles away. While debating his situation, Joseph noticed a crowd of onlookers gawping at him. A policeman escorted him into an empty waiting room. After trying to explain his situation, Joseph remembered he had Dr. Treves’ card.

Treves collected Joseph and admitted him to Royal London Hospital to treat his bronchitis. In the past two years, Joseph’s health had declined, his disabilities were now affecting his motor skills, and he had developed a heart problem. Treves predicted Joseph would die within in the next few years. While Dr. Treves and the Chairman of the Hospital, Francis Carr Gomm, wanted to keep Joseph in their care, Royal London Hospital did not have the funds nor equipment to care for him. They contacted other hospitals but none wanted to take Joseph. Gomm wrote an article in a national newspaper, The Times, where he argued Joseph’s case and asked readers for suggestions. The public response was phenomenal, and the Hospital received an outpouring of letters and donations. Members of British High Society campaigned and donated to the cause. Treves and Gomm used this to argue to the Hospital Committee that Joseph should stay. The hospital decided to support Joseph for life.

After Joseph settled into his new life in the Hospital, he became good friends with Treves—who he saw every day and spent several hours with on Sunday. Treves realized Joseph was an intelligent and chatty young man, and also very sensitive. Treves deduced Joseph had spent his entire life segregated from women as his appearance frightened most of them. He had a friend, Mrs. Leila Maturin, come and visit Joseph. Their meeting was cut short, mainly because Joseph was so overcome with joy. Joseph later remarked she was the first woman to smile at him and shake his hand. Leila and Joseph kept in contact and wrote letters to each other.

Joseph also expressed a wish to explore the “real world.” Treves tried to accommodate him to his best ability. He invited Joseph to his house for dinner and meet his family and arranged for him to go on holiday to a country estate. Joseph walked in the forests, collected wildflowers, and became friends with a young farmhand. With the help of some high society connections, Joseph viewed the Christmas Pantomime at the Theatre Royal. This had been a long-term wish of Joseph’s, and he was still talking about the performance weeks after.

On 21st May 1887, Joseph had the experience of a lifetime. The Prince and Princess of Wales (the future Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) visited the Hospital. Princess Alexandra requested to meet Joseph and was led to his rooms. Upon introduction, she shook his hand and sat with him. She later sent Joseph a signed picture and a Christmas card every year. These became Joseph’s prized possessions.

Meanwhile, his deteriorated, his deformities continued to grow, and he died on 11th April 1890 at age twenty-seven. Treves concluded the cause of death as asphyxiation, caused by the weight of his head leading to a dislocated neck. Joseph had spent his whole life sleeping upright out of necessity, and Treves believed Joseph had tried to sleep in a normal position.

Joseph Merrick faced fierce discrimination and ill-treatment from many others, including his own family, for something he could not control nor that was his fault. But at the same time, many people rallied to support him—friends, family, even strangers who saw him not as an “Elephant Man” but as a human being worthy of respect and dignity just like everyone else.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scarlett Grant is a young graduate trying to step into the real world. When she’s not writing for Femnista, she’s focusing on her own blog: Thoughts in 500 Words. She is also an amateur history buff, with other interests in art, film, languages, music and writing.

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