Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man: Freak Show Act to Gentleman

The Elephant Man freak show poster

Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man: Freak Show Act to Gentleman

Joseph Merrick, sometimes called John Merrick, is the best known Victorian freak show act. He is best known as the Elephant Man.

Merrick was born in 1862 in Leicester, England. He was like any other child for the first few years of his life, then he began to develop gray, fleshy and boney tumors on his skin. Historical reports conflict with different ages listed as to when skin growths began; it was sometime between two and five years old. The tumors worsened as he aged. His family attributed them to the fact his mother, while pregnant, had been frightened by an elephant.

His childhood was normal until his mother died when he was around 11 and his father quickly remarried. Merrick was forced to leave school and go to work. His condition, however, was worsening, making it difficult to work and speak. Many people were frightened by his appearance.

Merrick’s father beat him for not making enough money, and he went to live in a workhouse when he was 17.

Freak Show Act

The Elephant Man
The Elephant Man

In an attempt to escape the workhouse, which he hated, Merrick acquired a position with a freak show where he was marketed as half human, half elephant.

He traveled to London in 1884 and was exhibited across the street from London Hospital. He caught the attention of surgeon Frederick Treves, who examined Merrick. Treves wanted Merrick to undergo additional exams, but he refused.

While on tour in Belgium, after freak shows were outlawed in Britain, The Elephant Man exhibit failed to raise the funds its organizers had hoped. Merrick was abandoned by his promoter who also stole his money. Somehow Merrick was able to purchase passage back to London. Crowds mobbed him upon arrival, and he was arrested. Treves’ business card was in his pocket, and the surgeon was called.

A Better Life

Joseph Merrick
Joseph Merrick

Treves was dismayed to discover Merrick was in worse condition than when he last saw him. However, London Hospital was not equipped to provide someone with long-term care.

The hospital’s chairman wrote a letter that was published in The London Times. The letter asked for donations. The support was overwhelming, providing Merrick with a home for the rest of his life.

While living at the hospital, Merrick pursued and enjoyed the arts. He built an intricate, model church and wrote poetry.

He became the darling of his affluent benefactors, including the royal family, but his greatest wish was to find true love and live like other people.

Merrick died in London in 1890 at age 27. The weight of his head, which was 36 inches in circumference, broke his neck while he was sleeping. Ordinarily, Merrick had to sleep sitting up in order to prevent his suffocation.

After his death, a plaster cast was made of his body, samples were taken, and his skeleton was mounted. Unfortunately for science, the samples were destroyed during World War II. It is believed Merrick suffered from Proteus Syndrome, which causes abnormal skin and bone growth, or neurofibromatosis, a genetic disease that causes tumors.

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Updated:  23 October 2020
Melina Druga
Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.
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