The True History of “The Elephant Man”. Joseph Carey Merrick. Birth and early years. Born Aug. 5, 1862 in Leicester, England to a working-class family and a crippled mother
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Born Aug. 5, 1862 in Leicester, England to a working-class family and a crippled mother
According to local Leicester legend, Merrick’s mother Mary was nearly trampled by an elephant from a fair’s wild-beast show, suggesting Merrick’s appearance was some kind of a supernatural curse. Though the incident may have happened, it would have had nothing to do with John’s condition.
Joseph was born with no sign of abnormality—his condition manifested itself at 21 months.
Around 1882, Merrick was referred to the local hospital, the Leicester Infirmary, for an operation that removed approximately eight inches of flesh from his upper jaw.
In 1884, after nearly four years spent in the workhouse, Joseph took action. Having heard that local hotel/music-hall proprietor Sam Torr was looking for novelty acts, Joseph proposed exhibiting himself.
Torr gathered a group of investors— including freak-show promoter Tom Norman—to organize tours for Joseph. Joseph’s new advisors suggested he perform under the name “The Elephant Man, Half-a-Man and Half-an-Elephant.”
In November 1884, Norman set Merrick up in empty storefront 123 Whitechapel Road, directly across from the London Hospital.
Here, Dr. Frederick Treves saw Merrick and returned to learn more—a boy directed Treves to Norman, who was at a nearby pub. A private showing was arranged, at a fee.
After this private showing (much as it is dramatized in the film), Treves struck another deal with Norman to have Merrick come to the hospital for further study. With his walking stick, hat/mask, cloak, and slippers (and the aid of a hansom cab), the 22-year-old Merrick soon obliged.
Treves responded to a police request and met Merrick at the station, escorting the spent man back to the hospital, where he was temporarily installed in the isolation ward.
After five months, the issue had to be resolved: what to do with this incurable patient? Hospital Chairman Francis Carr-Gomm led the public-relations campaign, beginning with a plea published in The Times.
Soon thereafter, charity-minded actress Madge Kendal took an interest and began a correspondence with Joseph (including gifts: a gramophone for him; the famous cathedral model for her). She also made possible Joseph’s desire to learn basket work. Though the two never met, Kendal arranged a private box for Merrick to see his first theatrical performance, almost certainly the pantomime Puss in Boots.
In April of 1890, Joseph was found dead, with no sign of struggle. The cause of death was determined to be asphyxiation due to “the weight of the head pressing against the windpipe.” Treves surmised that John had at last attempted to lie normally “like other people,” as he had often wished aloud.
Life casts were taken of Merrick’s head and limbs, and Merrick’s skeleton was preserved. These and various artifacts remain on display in the London Hospital Medical College Museum.
NOT elephantiasis (a disease causing thickening of the skin, esp. the legs)
1970s: experts theorized Merrick has genetic disorder neurofibromatosis type I
1986: a new theory emerges that Merrick had congenital disorder Proteus syndrome
2003: DNA testing on hair and bone samples proves inconclusive
Today: conventional wisdom is that he surely had Proteus syndrome, though he may have had neurofibromatosis at the same time. Others say the problem of diagnosis suggests he had a unique condition: “Merrick’s disease”