When you hear the phrase, Elephant Man, it probably rings a bell. The name evokes images of the famous movie featuring a horribly deformed man for most people. If you have seen the movie, you probably found it touching, but you may not realize that it was based on a real story.
Elephant man was the nickname given to Englishman Joseph Merrick, born in Leicester in 1862 as a perfectly healthy child. It was not until he reached the age of five that his physical deformities began to show.
Joseph Merrick's condition has not been conclusively identified in the years following his death. Despite all the medical advances and subsequent DNA tests of his hair and bone samples, we still don't know what happened to Joseph Merrick called The Elephant Man.
Looking at his black and white images, it is hard to believe that a human could live life with such a disability. Yet he did, and he found some happiness, too, in the end.
Joseph Merrick's Normal Childhood
Joseph Merrick was born on August 5th, 1862, in Leicester, England, to Joseph and Mary Jane. Joseph Jr. had two siblings, both of whom died young due to illnesses. Merrick started life as a seemingly healthy child. It was only at the age of 5 that his physical degradation began.
His left arm was average, while his right swelled alarmingly. His feet ballooned too. The biggest deformities were visible on his face and upper body; a horrifying mass of lumps engulfed his face, skull, and back.
Young Joseph also fell and injured his hip as a child, making walking unaided difficult.
There was another man called John Merrick, who was born in 1864. Frederick Treves (the doctor who eventually examined Joseph) accidentally confused Joseph with John Merrick, thinking they were related. It turns out they were not, but the name John Merrick continues to be misused for Joseph.
Why Was Joseph Merrick Called The Elephant Man?
Joseph's mother, Mary Jane, had an explanation for her son's deformities. She said that she attended a fairground while pregnant with him, where she was knocked down and traumatized by an elephant. The family believed that this was the cause of Joseph's condition, hence his nickname, The Elephant Man.
Joseph was closest to his mother, who unfortunately passed away due to pneumonia in 1873 when Joseph was only 10. Joseph Sr. married Emma Wood in 1874.
Joseph Merrick felt no love for his father or stepmother (and vice-versa), so along with his condition made his situation dire. He left school at 13 and found a job in a cigar factory. After working there for three years, he could not continue since his deformed right hand made the intricate work impossible.
Joseph Sr. still wanted his son to earn an income, so he instructed him to go around Leicester as a door-to-door salesman. Due to his physical condition, most people were too scared even to answer the door when he knocked. Needless to say, this job was unsuccessful. Frustrated, Joseph Sr. attacked his son one day, causing him to leave home permanently.
Merrick's New Life As A Performer
Now that Joseph Merrick was homeless, his uncle took him in and housed him for a couple of years. During that time, Merrick kept looking for work but had no success. By this time, he was gaining so much public attention for his appearance that authorities revoked his license as a salesman.
By 1879, Charles Merrick could not support his nephew financially either, so Joseph's last option was to go to a workhouse in Leicester. This arrangement allowed him to live and work in the same complex.
After spending over four years in the workhouse, Joseph's only way out was to use his condition to his advantage. He contacted a local comedian Sam Torr, who agreed to help Merrick earn money by displaying his shocking physique. It was at this stage that Joseph was marketed as The Elephant Man. He traveled around Leicester and Nottingham before heading South to London in late 1884.
He settled in an East London shop where he would be shown to the public. While he had a bed to sleep in, it became clear that Joseph Merrick slept unconventionally. Due to his head's size, he was forced to sleep in a seated position with his head resting on his knees. This ensured that his neck would not break.
Joseph Merrick Called The Elephant Man Meets Dr. Treves
Coincidentally, the East London shop was based in Whitechapel, across the road from the London Hospital (that still exists today). Some of Merrick's most intrigued visitors were medical students and professionals. One such visitor was Frederick Treves.
Treves visited Merrick in the shop, then brought him to the hospital for a few examinations. Despite his horrific appearance, Treves noted that Merrick was not mentally damaged or in terrible health.
Treves gave Joseph his contact details, though the young adult grew tired of being looked at like an animal.
The authorities eventually shut down the shop where Joseph Merrick was based, so his managers decided to take him elsewhere in Europe to continue the show. Joseph's new manager stole his money and left him stranded when he arrived in Belgium.
Joseph Merrick Arrives Back In London
He only found his way back to London in June 1886 by taking a ferry from Antwerp to Essex and catching a train to Liverpool Street station in London, not far from the hospital.
Joseph Merrick had no money to travel back to Leicester, and upon his arrival, crowds began to gather around him. His deformed face and skull made it tricky for anybody to understand him. A policeman took him into a waiting room to find out what was happening, but he could not understand Joseph either.
Luckily, he still had Dr. Treves' contact details with him. The policeman contacted Treves, who swiftly picked him up from the station and returned him to the hospital.
Joseph's Odd Yet Pleasant Later Years
In the 18 months since Treves first examined Joseph Merrick, his health had declined further. His disfigured body now severely hampered him. Dr. Tevers also concluded that he also had a heart condition, so he had little time left to live. Under the watchful eye of Treves, Joseph's health did improve somewhat.
There remained the matter of supporting Joseph Merrick called the Elephant Man financially. After appealing to the public in the Times newspaper, the hospital chairman received sufficient financial support to house and help Merrick in the following years.
A dedicated area in the basement with two rooms and a courtyard was set up for Joseph. Mirrors were deliberately removed to give Joseph as normal an existence as possible. Treves visited Merrick frequently and learned to understand his distorted speech. Through these meetings, they grew close.
Joseph had never interacted adequately with a woman, so Dr. Treves set up a meeting between Merrick and a woman, Leila Maturin, at the hospital. She was warned about Joseph's looks so she would not be shocked.
The lady smiled at Joseph and shook his hand in the short encounter. Joseph broke down in tears because women had been disgusted by his face and body in the past. Dr. Treves also allowed Merrick to visit his house on one occasion, where he met his wife.
Joseph spent the last years of his life at the hospital, though he did leave London for occasional holidays around England. Overall, this was a satisfactory period for him.
A Sudden End
His body was found lying on his bed at the hospital on April 11th, 1890. He died due to asphyxiation when he injured his neck after apparently trying to sleep normally.
Joseph Merrick's skeleton was displayed at the London hospital, where he spent his last years. It was discovered in 2019 that Merrick's other remains were buried in an East London Cemetery not far away.
Thanks to the 1980 film that documented Merrick's life, the Elephant Man became known worldwide. A small museum containing Joseph's skeleton and personal items is accessible to medical students and professionals.
The man who got to know him best, Dr. Treves, recounted his interactions with Joseph Merrick in his 1923 book.