The Unusual Life of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man

The world may now be more compassionate and considerate toward people with physical deformities and disabilities. 

But the life of Joseph Merrick, also known as the Elephant Man, is a tragic tale that’s filled with a series of misfortunes due to his unorthodox appearance.

Joseph Merrick, 1889

Early Life

Joseph Carey Merrick was born on August 5, 1862, to Joseph Rockley and Mary Jane Merrick in Leicester, England. Despite the regular occurrence of smallpox outbreaks and the poor living conditions at that time, baby Joseph was healthy at birth.

But after he turned 21 months old, his lips started to swell. Soon, a bony protrusion appeared on his forehead and gradually grew. His facial skin also stretched and loosened.

By the time Joseph was five years old, he developed more serious signs of deformities. The size of his right arm was at least twice that of his left arm. He also had deformed and enlarged feet. 

As time passed, many large red growths appeared on different parts of his body. His skin also thickened and developed a rough texture.

When Joseph was a child, his mother — who was also believed to be physically disabled — told him that she had caused his condition. According to her, she visited a fairground while pregnant where a runaway elephant pushed her down and frightened her. Three months later, she gave birth to Joseph.

Experts believe that one of two possible illnesses may have caused Joseph’s abnormalities. One theory is he had a rare disease called Proteus Syndrome that leads to skin and bone overgrowth.

The second theory is he suffered from a genetic disorder called neurofibromatosis. It may have caused tumors on nerve tissues to grow. These may have later advanced to his brain and spine.

During his childhood, Joseph also had a hip injury. The infection that followed made him lame for the rest of his life, so he used a cane for walking.

A Harsh Childhood

Joseph suffered from many abnormalities and lameness. But he was still sent to school to receive a proper education. Nonetheless, he had no friends and his mother was his sole companion.

But when Joseph was only 11 years old, his mother died of pneumonia, leaving him devastated. He later called her death “the greatest misfortune of my life.”

Joseph’s father remarried 18 months later. But his new stepmother was cruel and did not want Joseph in the house. When he was 13 years old, she made him drop out of school and work for a living.

Joseph managed to get a job rolling cigars at a cigar shop. But his deformities steadily worsened and his abnormally large right hand made it hard for him to roll cigars.

Joseph’s father also grew distant from him over time and became cruel. He procured a hawker’s license for him so that he could work as a door-to-door salesman and peddle gloves. But Joseph’s facial deformities made it difficult for him to speak or eat properly. They also scared potential customers.

People initially thought that Joseph was mentally handicapped, but he actually taught himself to read and write.

As the boy struggled to earn money, his father thrashed him regularly. Joseph’s stepmother also stopped giving him food until he earned enough income to pay for his board.

Joseph’s harsh living conditions made him run away from home many times. Fortunately, his uncle Charles Merrick was kind and allowed him to stay with him. He also tried helping Joseph sell gloves. But customers remained frightened of his appearance. This finally led to his license being revoked after two years.

The Workhouse

When Joseph turned 17, he decided to work at the notorious workhouse in Leicester to support himself.

The Victorian workhouse system was a dreaded institution — even a hellhole — for the poor and needy. Its working conditions were appalling and taxing even for able-bodied people. 

Despite his deformities, Joseph spent five years working there under inhumane conditions.

The Freak Show Star

Joseph could not wait to escape the Leicester workhouse. When he finally did, he decided to join the circus to make money. He reached out to Tom Norman, a showman. He ended up hiring Joseph to star in his freak shows in London.

Joseph was branded as “half man, half elephant” due to his skin bulging from his face like an elephant’s trunk. Besides the “trunk-like” lump on his face, he also showcased his huge deformed skull and bent spine to spectators. He became a huge sensation at freak shows. But his health was declining fast.

Joseph earned a lot of money by starring as the Elephant Man in freak shows, but Norman profited more. It remains unclear if Norman used or abused Joseph. Nonetheless, Joseph never enjoyed freedom even though he later made enough money to support himself.

Photograph, Death of the ‘Elephant Man’

Meeting Dr. Frederick Treves

Joseph took up residence near the London Hospital while he was employed at the circus. During that time, he, fortunately, caught the attention of Dr. Frederick Treves. He was a surgeon who was interested in the “Elephant Man” and subsequently requested to inspect his deformities.

With Joseph’s consent, Dr. Treves inspected him and found his abnormalities extreme. Soft-tissue swellings and bony protrusions covered most of Joseph’s body. He also suffered from physical and psychological pain.

Dr. Treves and Joseph stayed in touch even after Joseph relocated with the freak show from London to Belgium. 

However, Joseph’s life in Belgium was tougher than before as his new manager stole from him and left him homeless in a foreign land. Joseph somehow managed to travel back to England where he went to visit Dr. Treves.

By the time Joseph turned 24 years old, his health declined greatly. Dr. Treves made sure that he could stay at the hospital. Dr. Treves also created a fund where people could donate money for the special treatment Joseph needed.

Joseph spent four peaceful and comfortable years at the London Hospital. 

During that time, many famous theater personalities visited him and showed their support for the man who had entertained so many people. By then, people had turned their backs on freak shows because they were viewed as redundant and savage.

Joseph’s Death

On April 11, 1890, Joseph passed away in his hospital bed. It is believed that he dislocated his neck while trying to sleep lying down on the bed. The official cause of his death was asphyxia.

Since his passing, there have been many stage and film productions. This includes David Lynch’s 1980 film The Elephant Man, which explored his life and extreme deformities. This helps him stay alive in public memory beyond what his difficult lifetime allowed.

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