Cowering and afraid in a cage in front of a ‘freak show’ audience staring at his disfigured face. This is how most of us think of Joseph Merrick but nothing could be further from the truth.
The true story is one of an independent disabled man who was ahead of his time. The real Joseph Merrick was a trailblazer who escaped a life of poverty to make his own living and whose story of personal determination in the face of prejudice and ignorance inspired millions during and after his lifetime.
Joseph Carey Merrick was born in Leicester in 1862. At the annual May Fair, three months before he was born, his mother was frightened or fell in front of parading elephants. She believed this caused Joseph’s disfigurement and this led to the name by which Joseph would later become known, The Elephant Man.
After his mother passed away and his father remarried, Joseph was unable to find work and at the age of seventeen entered the Leicester Union workhouse. Joseph spent four years in the workhouse and despite his disability would probably have been put to work grinding stone or crushing bones. He was faced with a decision – stay in the workhouse and die or go out and make his own life.
Joseph understood that his unique physical appearance drew interest as huge crowds would gather around him when he walked through the streets of Leicester. As an intelligent young man, he knew that Victorian crowds would pay good money to see anything unusual and different, so he made a decision to enter the world of show business.
Joseph toured the East Midlands before travelling to London to meet the showman Tom Norman. Joseph and Tom Norman became partners and set up ‘The Elephant Man’ show on Whitechapel Road in London.
In the 1980s film ‘The Elephant Man’ by David Lynch, Tom Norman is portrayed as a drunk old man who bullies and beats Joseph. But Tom was actually a young man, never drank and cared for his clients with considerable care and compassion. His admiration for Joseph is clear, with Norman describing Joseph as “probably the most remarkable human being to ever draw the breath of life”.
Tom Norman would charge visitors a fee that he would share with Joseph before recounting a fictional tale that described how Joseph’s mother was stamped on by an elephant, creating a half-man, half elephant creature. Merrick, an excellent writer, also wrote a pamphlet telling the same story which he sold at the show, keeping the earnings for himself.
It was not only the public who were interested in these ‘freak shows’. Surgeons would scout the street exhibitions looking for unusual medical cases. One of them, Doctor Frederick Treves, visited the show and asked Joseph to come to the nearby London hospital to be studied by doctors. Joseph went but after the second or third visit he refused to go back saying that stripped naked, he felt like an animal in a cattle market. Joseph’s willingness to refuse a powerful and influential man like Dr. Treves is a demonstration of just how independent and strong-minded he was.
Soon after the police closed ‘The Elephant Man’ show in Whitechapel but undeterred and wealthy from his earnings, Joseph joined a travelling circus before finding a new manager and taking his show to Europe. It is unclear exactly what happened next but after a year travelling across Europe it seems his new manager robbed him of his life savings before abandoning him in Brussels. If this is true, Joseph again proved how exceptional he was in the face of adversity. Somehow, without any money he found his way across the English Channel.
There he made his way to London and the hospital on Whitechapel Road, where he was taken in by Dr. Treves who found his condition had severely deteriorated. Joseph was given a temporary bed as the hospital did not have the facilities to look after him but the chairman of the hospital wrote to the Times newspaper asking readers for their support. There was an incredible response from the public with letters and donations which enabled Joseph to stay at the hospital for the rest of his life.
Joseph lived out his years in a small one-bedded apartment by the east wing of the hospital known as Bedstead Square surrounded by books and hundreds of letters and gifts from people inspired by his story. Joseph would often reply to the letters he received and end his letters with these lines from a favourite poem.
Joseph was a gifted young man who spent his remaining years reading books, writing letters, and building cardboard models. One of his models was of St Martin’s Cathedral, Mainz in Germany, which he gifted to actress Madge Kendal. The model is still on display at The Royal London Hospital Museum.
This was a happy time in Joseph’s life. Dr. Treves visited him daily and the pair developed a close friendship. Joseph’s charm, dignity and intelligence attracted influential visitors including the future queen, Princess Alexandra with whom he became good friends.
During this time Joseph developed a love of flowers and was fascinated by the countryside which he frequently read about. On a six week visit to the countryside arranged by Dr. Treves, Joseph collected wild flowers to take back with him to London and also pressed them between the pages of the letters he wrote. Dr. Treves recounts that although they were of the commonest kind, the flowers were regarded by Joseph as “rare and precious”. His room in London was often full of flowers sent by well wishers and after daylight he would visit the hospital’s gardens to enjoy the plants and flowers there. It is Joseph’s love of flowers that is the inspiration for Joseph’s Garden.
Joseph Merrick died on 11 April 1890 aged twenty-seven having lived an extraordinary life that continues to inspire many to this day.
By Jo Mungovin
Author of ‘Joseph, The Life, Times and Places of the Elephant Man’.