Joseph Carey Merrick
Born: 1862 Died: 1890
Occupation: Cigar Roller, Sales Person, Side Show Performer
Challenges overcome: Neurofibromatosis (NF), or von Recklinghausen disease. Proteus Syndrome. Physical Disability
Successes, Achievements & Awards:
Joseph Carey Merrick, sometimes incorrectly referred to as John Merrick was an English man with severe disabilities who was exhibited as a human curiosity in Victorian times, which most people with a disability tended to do to earn a living and survive during this era. Best known as “The Elephant Man,” Joseph Carey Merrick has been the subject of many medical studies, documentaries and works of fiction. Joseph was born on August 5, 1862, in Leicester, England. At a young age he began to develop physical disabilities and was named the Elephant Man due to the thickening of his skin that became lumpy and was similar in colour to elephant skin, he also developed enlarged lips and a bony lump grew on his forehead. One of his arms and both of his feet became enlarged and at some point during his childhood he fell and damaged his hip, resulting in permanent physical disability causing him to limp.
When he was 10, his mother died, and his father soon remarried. Rejected by his father and stepmother, he left home. Joseph Merrick left school at the age of 13 and had difficulty finding employment, eventually finding a job rolling cigars in a factory. But within two years, his right hand had become so disabled that he could no longer do the work and was forced to leave. His father, who owned a haberdashery, attained a peddler’s license for him and sent him out to the streets to sell his shop’s wares. By this point, however, Joseph Merrick’s disabilities were so extreme, and his speech so impaired as a result, that people were either frightened of him or unable to understand him, and his efforts were met with little success. In late 1879, Joseph at aged 17 entered the Leicester Union Workhouse, as was common for those who had disabilities. His physical disabilities became so extreme that he was forced to become a resident of the workhouse but seeking to escape the workhouse several years later, Joseph found his way into a human oddities show in which he was exhibited as “The Elephant Man.”
In 1884, after four years in the workhouse, Joseph Merrick contacted a showman named Sam Torr and proposed that Torr should exhibit him. Sam Torr agreed and arranged for a group of men to manage Joseph Merrick, whom they named the Elephant Man. After touring the East Midlands, John Merrick travelled to London to be exhibited in a penny gaff shop on Whitechapel Road which was rented by showman Tom Norman whose shop was directly across the street from the London Hospital. Joseph Merrick became well known in London society after he went to live at the London Hospital where he was visited by a surgeon named Frederick Treves, who invited Merrick to be examined and photographed. Soon after Joseph Merrick’s visits to the hospital started, Tom Norman’s shop was closed by the police, and Merrick’s managers sent him to tour in Europe.
In Belgium, Joseph Merrick was robbed by his road manager and abandoned in Brussels. He eventually made his way back to London; unable to communicate, he was found by the police to have Dr. Treves’s card on him. Dr. Treves came and took Joseph Merrick back to the London Hospital. Although his condition was incurable, John Merrick was allowed to stay at the hospital for the remainder of his life. Dr Treves visited him daily, and the pair developed quite a close friendship.
John Merrick also received visits from the wealthy ladies and gentlemen of London society, including Alexandra, Princess of Wales.
Unable to care for Joseph Merrick, the chairman of the hospital published a letter asking for public support. The resulting donations allowed the hospital to convert several rooms into living quarters for Joseph where he would be cared for the rest of his life. Aged 27, Joseph Merrick died on 11 April 1890. The official cause of death was asphyxia, although Dr Treves, who dissected the body, said that Joseph Merrick had died of a dislocated neck/broken vertebrae. He believed that Joseph Merrick who had to sleep sitting up because of the weight of his head had been attempting to sleep lying down, to “be like other people”.
In 1979, Bernard Pomerance’s play about Merrick called The Elephant Man debuted, and David Lynch’s film, also called The Elephant Man, was released the following year. In late 2014 and early 2015, Bradley Cooper starred in a Broadway revival of The Elephant Man, directed by Scott Ellis.
The exact cause of Joseph Merrick’s disabilities is unclear. The dominant theory throughout much of the 20th century was that Joseph suffered from neurofibromatosis type I. In 1986, a new theory emerged that he had Proteus syndrome. In 2001, it was proposed that Joseph Merrick had suffered from a combination of neurofibromatosis type I and Proteus syndrome. DNA tests conducted on his hair and bones have proven inconclusive.
Proteus Syndrome also known as Wiedemann Syndrome (named after the German paediatrician Hans-Rudolf Wiedemann), is a congenital disorder that causes skin overgrowth and atypical bone development, often accompanied by tumours over half the body. Proteus Syndrome causes an overgrowth of skin, bones, muscles, fatty tissues, and blood and lymphatic vessels.
Proteus syndrome is a progressive condition in which children are usually born without any obvious disabilities. Tumours of skin and bone growths appear as they age. The severity and locations of these various asymmetrical growths vary greatly but typically the skull, one or more limbs, and soles of the feet will be affected. There is a risk of premature death in affected individuals due to deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism caused by the vessel malformations that are associated with this disability.
Neurofibromatosis Type 1
Neurofibromatosis is the general name for a number of genetic conditions that cause tumours to grow along your nerves. Tumours are swellings formed by a growth of cells. In neurofibromatosis, the tumours are usually non-cancerous (benign).
Neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1) is the most common type, affecting about one in 3,000 births. NF1 is a condition you’re born with, although some symptoms develop gradually over many years. The severity of the condition can vary considerably from person to person.
In most cases of NF1 the skin is affected, causing symptoms such as:
• pale, coffee-coloured patches
• soft, non-cancerous bumps on or under the skin (neurofibromas)
Download our Library List for further reading on many of the disabilities featured in this site
Please click on the information links below to find out more.
Joseph Merrick. (2015). The Biography.com website. Retrieved 11:56, Apr 29, 2015, from http://www.biography.com/people/elephant-man-joseph-merri
Joseph Merrick. (2015, May 23). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 16:04, May 28, 2015, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Joseph_Merrick&oldid=663667821
Image source: Wikicommons
Ashley Montague, The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity . Published August 1st 2001 by Acadian House Publishing 2001 (first published 1971, again in 1979)
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