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Joseph Carey Merrick - the ‘Elephant Man’ (1862-90)

Born in 1862, Joseph Merrick began growing disfiguring tumours before the age of 2 and his condition rapidly worsened, rendering one of his arms completely immobile. Increasing health problems eventually made it impossible for Merrick to continue his working life and poverty forced him to enter the Leicester union workhouse. Desperate to find a way out of such grim conditions, Merrick contacted the owner of a Leicester music hall in 1884. Together they established a successful act called ‘the Elephant Man, Half-a-Man and Half-an-Elephant’, in which Merrick displayed his increasingly misshapen body. Merrick himself followed an old folk belief, stating that his appearance was due to his mother being frightened by an elephant during pregnancy.

When his act moved to London, Merrick came to the attention of a number of surgeons, including Frederick Treves. By this time, Merrick was extensively disfigured, with bony protrusions and soft-tissue swellings covering much of his body. He also experienced physical and psychological pain. To avoid the stares and attention of others, he covered himself in a cape and veil whenever he ventured outside. Distressed by the reaction of others to his body, Merrick often quoted a poem by the hymn writer Isaac Watts: ‘Tis true, my form is something odd, But blaming me is blaming God.’

Public opinion was beginning to turn against the display of people with unusual bodies as ‘freaks’, and Merrick was taken in by Treves at the London Hospital. A special appeal was launched to raise the funds to allow him to live within the hospital. Merrick was not completely isolated, however, receiving numerous visitors, attending the theatre and making trips to the country.

Merrick died unexpectedly in 1890, and Treves arranged for casts to be made of Merrick's body. He also took skin samples and probably oversaw the bleaching and mounting of his skeleton. Merrick is now thought to have suffered from Proteus syndrome. His life has been the subject of plays, films and stories, which focus on his intelligence and sensitivity as a message of tolerance.

 

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Bibliography

C Ferguson, ‘Elephant talk: language and enfranchisement in the Merrick case’, in M Tromp (ed.), Victorian Freaks: The Social Context of Freakery in Britain (Colombus OH: Ohio State University Press, 2008)

P Graham and F Oehlschlaeger, Articulating the Elephant Man: Joseph Merrick and his Interpreters (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1992)

M Howell and P Ford, The True History of the Elephant Man (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980)

J C Merrick, The Life and Adventures of Joseph Carey Merrick ... Half a Man & Half an Elephant (Leicester: H & A Cockshaw, c 1880)

F. Treves, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences (London: Star Books, 1980), originally published London: Cassell and Company, 1923

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