Your guide to the Elephant Man

He was the star attraction at Victorian London freak shows; his curved spine, overgrown skull and ‘trunk-like’ facial growth making him an object of fascination among doctors and the public alike. We spoke to researchers at Queen Mary University of London about Joseph Carey Merrick, better known as the Elephant Man...

This article was first published in January 2014

Joseph Merrick,The Elephant Man in the Doniach Museum LHMC Whitechapel

Merrick’s skeleton has been stored at Queen Mary University of London since 1995, and has been used as a learning resource since 2005. We spoke to Steve Moore, who manages the skeleton, to find out more about Merrick, and how he came to be known as the Elephant Man.

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Q: Who was Joseph Merrick?

A: Merrick was born in Leicester. His deformities began to emerge at the age of five, and they forced him to leave school at 13. His right arm was two or three times the size of the left one, and his feet were deformed.

His mother died, and his stepmother did not want him in the home.

Merrick tried to become a hawker [seller] of goods, but it’s documented that he scared more people than he sold to. So that didn’t work out.

He then tried to get a job rolling cigars, but his deformities meant he was unable to do so. So he ended up in the workhouse.

It was so awful, he felt the only way to make money was to join the circus. He contacted showman Tom Norman, and went to London to star in his freak shows.

There has been a lot of debate about whether Norman was using or abusing Merrick. Merrick made a lot of money starring in the shows, but Norman made more.

Whatever the truth, Merrick never experienced freedom.

He arrived in London aged 22, and appeared in freak shows before heading to Belgium.

He then came back to London and became destitute. He was taken to London Hospital in a poor state aged 24. He spent his last years in the hospital, dying aged 27.

During his time in hospital he was visited by famous people from the theatre, as well as Princess Alexandra. This was largely because public opinion had turned against freak shows – freak shows were shut down and royal societies founded, in order to restore medicine’s professional image.

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The skeleton of Joseph Carey Merrick (image Ray Crundwell, Queen Mary University of London)

Q: What were Merrick’s deformities?

A: He had scoliosis; an overgrown right arm; skull bone outgrowth; and skin protruded from his face like a trunk. This is where the association with elephants came from. And it was claimed that his mother, when pregnant with him, was knocked down by an elephant.

It was amazing how the myth of the Elephant Man perpetuated over the years.

He was unable to talk, and struggled to eat. He was also lame in one leg. People thought he was an imbecile.

He taught himself to read and write, and survived in very poor conditions. He was kept – even in winter – in a shop in Mile End, where a single flame was the only source of heat or light.

Just think about the quality of food that he would have eaten, and the difficulty that he would have had eating it. You or I would have gone mad with frustration.

Q: How was Merrick received by the public?

A: He attracted plenty of interest in the Victorian period, from the mid to late 1800s. The public was, at that time, intrigued by anatomy and freak shows.

It was the height of the British Empire – for the first time people had disposable incomes, and free time. Anatomy became an incredibly popular part of freak shows.

Showmen were always looking for more and more things to display – the very tall or very thin; the bearded lady; conjoined twins. But no one had seen Merrick’s level of deformity.

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The skeleton of Joseph Carey Merrick (image Ray Crundwell, Queen Mary University of London)