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The Tragic Life of Joseph Merrick, the 'Elephant Man'

elephant man
John Hurt starred as Joseph Merrick in the David Lynch film, "The Elephant Man," released in 1980. Images Press/Getty Images

Bradley Cooper has portrayed him on Broadway, and so has Billy Crudup. Even David Bowie and Mark Hamill have taken turns playing a historical figure many people may not recognize by name, but have almost certainly heard about: Joseph Merrick, otherwise known as the Elephant Man.

Born in Leicester, England on Aug. 5, 1862, Merrick came to be remembered for a nickname that referenced the physical attributes of his unidentified illness. With a giant, misshapen skull, scaly skin, curved spine and "trunk-like" growth on his face, Merrick eventually launched a brief career based on his disfigurements, as a professional "freak" on exhibition in London.

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Symptoms Began Appearing in Childhood

Merrick began experiencing odd symptoms around the age of 5, though he had been born as a healthy child to parents Joseph and Mary Jane Merrick. Symptoms started with swollen lips, a growing forehead lump, and increasingly loose and rough skin. The size of his head eventually grew to a circumference of 3 feet (0.9 meters), and the skin across his face became spongy. He developed increasing deformations in his jaw, which impaired his speech, and his right wrist and hand became fin-like over time. As his legs and hip took on abnormalities as well, he came to rely on a walking stick.

According to Joanne Vigor-Mungovin, author of "Joseph: The Life, Times and Places of The Elephant Man, "Merrick had two younger siblings: William Arthur, who died in an 1870 smallpox epidemic, and Marian Eliza, whose death certificate says she was "crippled" from birth with an unknown ailment. "Merrick went to school, probably the school attached to the Baptist church where his mother taught Sunday school," Vigor-Mungovin says. "His father worked in many factories, but also owned a haberdashery shop and an oil and lamp dealership."

Merrick's mother died in 1873 when he was 11 years old. "It's not actually known when he started showing signs of his disability or whether his mother knew of her son's illness before she died," Vigor-Mungovin says. "He attended school like any other child, went to church and left school at the normal school leaving age. It seems that life for Merrick was the same as a typical child growing up in Leicester in the 1870s."

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Joseph Carey Merrick as he appeared in daily life. He often donned a cape and veil to hide his deformity.
Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty images

Merrick left school at age 13 and went to work in a cigar factory. "The job lasted two years and during those two years, his deformity was getting worse," Vigor-Mungovin says. Merrick then got his hawker's license in order to help his father sell goods from his shop in the streets of Leicester, and eventually checked himself into the Leicester Union Workhouse and lived with his uncle.

"Merrick was a working-class man from Northern England who had labored at unskilled jobs since the age of 11, first in a cigar factory, and later as a peddler," Nadja Durbach, history professor at the University of Utah, writes via email. "Forced out of his home by his stepmother, who found him grotesque, he had taken shelter with a kind uncle, but had also lived in cheap lodging houses before eventually checking himself into the workhouse where he remained for almost five years."

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A Mysterious Illness

As for the cause of Merrick's deformities, the explanation is still somewhat of a mystery. He himself reportedly believed that his physical characteristics were a result of his mother's encounter with an elephant, but experts originally thought they were caused by elephantiasis. Now, scientists believe Merrick suffered from an extremely severe case of neurofibromatosis and/or a rare disease called Proteus syndrome.

In 1884, Merrick made a life-changing decision. "He decided to check himself out [of the workhouse] in order to put himself on display as a 'freak,'" Durbach says. Merrick reached out to Sam Torr, the proprietor of a Leicester music hall called the Gaiety Palace of Varieties. Soon, Torr was exhibiting Merrick as "The Elephant Man, Half-Man, Half-Elephant" and he achieved great local success before moving his act to London. To avoid harassment in public, Merrick often donned a cape and veil to conceal his appearance.

"I am interested in him because he deliberately chose to exhibit himself as a 'freak' because he felt that this was a form of labor and he preferred honest work and earning his own living and the independence that provided to charity or government welfare," Durbach says.

A surgeon named Frederick Treves came across Merrick's story and invited him to visit his hospital for an examination. At that point, Merrick's head had grown to a circumference of 36 inches (90 centimeters) and his right wrist measured 12 inches (30 centimeters) around. He had tumors covering his entire body and now exclusively walked with a cane, but Treves found he was otherwise in good health. Treves presented Merrick to the Pathological Society of London and asked him to come back to the hospital for more exams. But Merrick refused. He later said the experience made him feel like "an animal in a cattle market."

"Merrick was a very independent and intelligent young man," Vigor-Mungovin says. "No one forced him into exhibiting himself — this was his decision. He could either live out his days in the bleak, grim, harsh Leicester Union Workhouse, or go out there and make a life for himself. Merrick chose life."

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A photograph of Joseph Merrick shows the severe bodily deformities that were caused by his disease.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty

Merrick relocated and tried to find success in Belgium, but he was taken advantage of by an unscrupulous manager there, who robbed him of his life savings and abandoned him. The sum that was stolen from him was considerable, indicating that he had been able to make a decent living and find some success. By June 1886, Merrick was able to find a passenger ship back to England, where he was subsequently deemed "incurable" by doctors at the London Hospital. The chairman of the hospital, Francis Carr-Gomm, published a letter in The Times describing Merrick's case and requesting assistance. The letter garnered an outpouring of financial donations, which Merrick was able to use for housing through the remainder of his life.

Merrick's condition, however, continued to worsen, and on April 11, 1890, he was found dead at age 27, lying flat on his back in bed. Because of the size of his head, he'd spent the majority of life sleeping upright, resting his head against his knees. "I think that people should understand that it is highly likely that Merrick committed suicide," Durbach says. "It appears that he requested to be released from the hospital so that he could return to the show world, but his support network outside the hospital was repeatedly denied access to him. There is really no better explanation for his death than he understood that lying flat would lead to his death."

Durbach says Merrick was also very likely keenly aware of his fate. "The most interesting thing about Merrick is that he understood that after his death, he would become an anatomical specimen for display by the hospital that had claimed to give him refuge," Durbach says. "He used to talk about ending up 'in a huge bottle of alcohol,' indicating that he believed that the hospital was not really that different from the freak show."

While many accounts claim Treves was Merrick's close friend and confidante (he even wrote a book about him), Durbach says that likely wasn't the case. "Treves didn't even remember that his name was Joseph, calling him 'John' in his memoirs," she says. "Thus I don't think Treves knew him that well or cared much for him."

When Merrick died, the hospital declared that there would be no post mortem, but it did take tissue samples and made body casts, presenting one to the Royal College of Surgeons, "presumably for installation in the Hunterian Museum alongside the remains of 'the Irish Giant' and the 'the Sicilian Fairy,'" Dubach says. "Thomas Horrocks Openshaw, the pathological specimens curator at the London Medical College's Pathological Museum, then stripped the body of its flesh and boiled down the bones for articulation, as the House Committee had decided that the skeleton should be set up in the College Museum." Merrick's solitary life was capped by an impersonal, unceremonious end in which an undertaker removed his remaining flesh and internal organs and buried them in an unmarked grave.

"If Treves and the hospital cared for Merrick, why did they not bury his remains in a marked grave instead of disposing of them in this cheap way?" Durbach says. "I think they just saw him as a pathological specimen."

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Joseph Merrick's Story Continues to Resonate

Over the decades since his death, Merrick has been immortalized in print and on stage and screen. Bernard Pomerance famously created the 1979 play based on his life, and David Lynch's film starred John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft.

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Patricia Selby was the most direct living descendant of Joseph Merrick. Her grandfather was Merrick's uncle, and her father James Potterton, his first cousin. "I get from reading about him that he was a very nice man," Selby said, according to the BBC News.
Xavier ROSSI/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

One hundred and thirty years after his passing, Merrick's story continues to hold a special place in the hearts of people like Vigor-Mungovin. "I live in his hometown and grew up with stories of 'The Elephant Man,'" she says. "It started with the film, watching the bullying Merrick endured and feeling what he was going through. I was bullied all the way through school from nursery to high school, I never fit in, I was shy, dyslexic, and had a strange surname which never helps. I am also extremely interested in the history of Leicester, immensely proud of our past and our stories. I remember watching the film and thinking, 'this guy is from Leicester and there is no reference to his childhood, his life, his family at all.' That had to change."

Vigor-Mungovin is adamant that Merrick's legacy is about much more than the medical mysteries surrounding his life. "Whatever illness he did suffer from, it does not define him as a human being," she says. "He suffered greatly with his ailments and life growing up in working class Leicester, hardships were never far away. Merrick had an inquisitive mind, he excelled in arts and crafts, a business acumen which saw him turn his disadvantage into an advantage and with the support he did receive from his managers, doctors and friends, people that met Merrick saw beyond his deformities and instantly took to him and that is a testament to no other but the man himself."

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