Joseph Merrick

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search
Joseph Merrick

Born Joseph Carey Merrick
August 5, 1862(1862-08-05)
Leicester, England
Died April 11, 1890 (aged 27)
London, England
Nationality English
Occupation Sideshow performer
Parents Mary Jane Potterton
Joseph Rockley Merrick

Joseph Carey Merrick (August 5 1862 – April 11 1890) was an Englishman who became known as "The Elephant Man" because of his physical appearance caused by a congenital defect. Because of his condition, he would garner the sympathy of Victorian era Britain.



Joseph Merrick was born to Mary Jane Potterton and Joseph Rockley Merrick.[1] Because of an error made by Sir Frederick Treves in his book, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences, Merrick is sometimes erroneously referred to by the name John Merrick.[2] He was the eldest of three and had a younger brother and sister. In an autobiographical note which appeared on the reverse side of his freak show pamphlet, Merrick mentions that his deformity began developing at the age of three with small bumps appearing on the left side of his body.[3] His mother died when he was 12. According to family accounts, she was physically disabled too. His father remarried, but his stepmother did not want young Joseph. Obliged to earn a living by selling goods on the street, Merrick was constantly harassed by local children. Unable to bring home a profit and tired of fighting with his stepmother, Merrick left home.

Twice ending up in the Leicester Union workhouse, Merrick was unemployable for most of his life. On August 29, 1884, he took a job as a sideshow performer where he was treated decently and earned a considerable sum of money. At one point during his sideshow career, Merrick was exhibited in the back of an empty shop on Mile End Road in London (now called the London Sari Centre), where he was seen by the physician Frederick Treves (later knighted). As Treves recalled decades later in his memoirs, he gave Merrick one of his business cards in the event that Merrick would be willing to submit to medical examination. The two men then went their separate ways. When sideshows were outlawed in the United Kingdom in 1886, Merrick traveled to Belgium to find work. There, he was mistreated and ultimately abandoned by a showman, who stole Merrick's savings of £50 (worth approximately £3,900 in 2007 currency).

After making his way back to London, Merrick inadvertently caused a disturbance in Liverpool Street train station. Suffering from a severe bronchial infection and hampered by his deformities, Merrick was barely able to speak intelligibly. However, he had kept Treves' business card, and Treves was duly summoned by the authorities. In his role as physician at London Hospital, Treves arranged for Merrick to be given permanent quarters there. Merrick thrived in these circumstances.

He became something of a celebrity in Victorian high society. Alexandra of Denmark, then Princess of Wales and later Queen Consort, developed a kindly interest in Merrick, leading other members of the upper class to embrace him. He eventually became a favorite of Queen Victoria. However, Treves later commented that Merrick always wanted, even after living at the hospital, to go to a hospital for the blind where he might find a woman who would not be repelled by his appearance. In his final years, he found some solace in writing and visiting the countryside.

In the summer of 1887, he spent some weeks at the Fawsley Hall estate, Northamptonshire. Special measures were taken for his journey, and he was forced to travel in a carriage with blinds drawn to avoid attracting attention. He greatly enjoyed his time away from urban London, made many new friends and collected wild flowers to take back with him to London. He visited again in 1888 and 1889. He was cared for at the hospital until his death at the age of 27 on April 11, 1890, apparently from the accidental dislocation of his neck due to its inability to support the weight of his massive head in sleep. Merrick, unable to sleep reclining due to the weight of his head, may have tried to do so in this instance, in an attempt to imitate normal behavior. The coroner at his inquest was Wynne Edwin Baxter, who had come to prominence during the notorious Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 when he had likewise presided at the inquests of several of the victims.

The skeleton of Joseph Merrick.

Merrick's preserved skeleton was previously on display at the Royal London Hospital. While his remains can no longer be viewed by the public, there is a small museum focused on his life, which houses some of his personal effects and period Merrick memorabilia.

Medical condition

Merrick photographed in 1889
Merrick's cap and hood
Card church built by Merrick
The only known letter written by Merrick

Joseph Merrick was originally thought to be suffering from elephantiasis. In 1971, Ashley Montagu suggested in his book The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity that Merrick suffered from neurofibromatosis type I, a genetic disorder also known as von Recklinghausen's disease. During 1986 it was postulated that Merrick actually suffered from Proteus syndrome, previously diagnosed by Michael Cohen seven years earlier.[4]. Unlike neurofibromatosis, Proteus syndrome, named for the shape-shifting god Proteus, affects tissue other than nerves, and is a sporadic rather than genetic transmitted disorder.[5]

In June 2001, Paul Spiring wrote an item for Biologist (see [1]) in which, he proposed a novel diagnosis for Joseph Merrick's condition. He suggested that Merrick suffered from combined Neurofibromatosis type 1 and Proteus syndrome (see [2]). This theory was endorsed by Peter Evans, the then science correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, in his article entitled Two Wrongs don't make a right - until someone joins them up... (14 June 2001). It also formed the basis for a documentary film that was produced by Discovery Health Channel and released on 21 July 2003 (see [3], [4] & [5]).

During 2002, a television research team, along with genealogists, put out a BBC appeal to trace the Merrick family line. In response to the appeal, a Leicester resident named Pat Selby was discovered to be the granddaughter of Merrick's uncle. A research team took her DNA samples in order to try to diagnose the condition that caused his deformities. The investigation also discovered that Merrick's sister, Marion Eliza, suffered from myelitis. Marion Eliza died at the age of 23 of severe food poisoning.

During 2003, DNA tests conducted by Dr. Charis Eng on samples of Merrick's hair and bone showed no mutation in the PTEN gene (only present in some Proteus syndrome sufferers). Hence, there is as of yet, no physical evidence to support the theory that Merrick suffered from Proteus syndrome.

Merrick's condition greatly affected his social relation and his views of himself:

"Tis true my form is something odd, But blaming me is blaming God. Could I create myself anew, I would not fail in pleasing you. If I could reach from pole to pole, Or grasp the ocean with a span, I would be measured by the soul, The mind's the standard of the man."

A poem by Isaac Watts that Joseph Merrick would use to end his letters.


Little is known about Merrick's family. He was named after his father, Joseph Rockley Merrick (March 1838–January 30, 1897), who was born in Leicester to Sarah Rockley, the third wife of Barnabas Merrick (August 23, 1792–12 April, 1856). Joseph Sr. married the reportedly "crippled" Mary Jane Potterton on December 29, 1861. It is believed that the Merrick family lived at one time on Syston Street in Leicester, off the Humberstone Lane, but being poor houses, they have since been demolished. The original site is now the Cobden Street Estate.

Their oldest son, Joseph, was born on August 5, 1862, in Leicester. Their younger son, William Arthur Merrick, was born on January 8, 1866, followed by their daughter Marion Eliza Merrick on September 28, 1867. William contracted scarlet fever and died on December 21, 1870. Marion Eliza had been disabled since birth, but would survive until March 19, 1891, dying from a seizure.

The Elephant Man, the film released on October 3, 1980, features Mary Jane's son "John" speaking highly of her. "She has the face of an angel," he says. John (Joseph) is depicted looking at a small picture of his mother very often in the film.

Mary Jane died from bronchial pneumonia on May 19, 1873. Joseph was re-married to Emma Wood Antill on December 3, 1874, and she soon convinced her new husband to send the deformed Joseph away.

Name discrepancy

Early biographies of Merrick inaccurately give his first name as John, an error repeated in many later versions, including the 1980 film The Elephant Man. This error arose and propagated because most of the early works including Ashley Montagu's The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity and Frederick Drimmer's Very Special People, used as research the memoirs of Sir Frederick Treves, written many years after his first-hand experience with Merrick. Treves misreported Merrick's first name as John, causing Montagu and Drimmer to repeat this error in good faith. Montagu's book, in an appendix, quotes a document by Dr. F.C. Carr Gomm, written shortly after Merrick's death, in which Gomm correctly identifies Merrick as Joseph; Montagu dismisses this as Gomm's error. The stage play identifies Merrick as John throughout, except when Gomm (also a character in this play) reads aloud the same document later quoted by Montagu, correctly naming him as Joseph Merrick. In the play, Treves considers this an error, "correcting" Gomm by remarking, "John. John Merrick." The film From Hell also contains what may be a tongue-in-cheek reference to this historical disagreement: in a scene where Merrick is depicted, the character introducing Merrick refers to him correctly as Joseph Merrick but an unseen guest "corrects" him by whispering loudly "John Merrick!" This has been a common mistake for the past century.

In popular culture

Following the publication of Montagu's book, Merrick returned to popular attention around 1980 when two high-profile productions made him their subject. His life story became the basis of the 1979 Tony Award-winning play The Elephant Man, in which he is initially played by Philip Anglim, followed by David Bowie. In the following year, the Academy Award-nominated film The Elephant Man was released, in which he was played by John Hurt. A novel based upon the film was released in the same year, written by Christine Sparks. Each production took a different approach to the story. In 1982, the play was broadcast as a television movie. In most productions, the actor playing Merrick wears no makeup, instead mimicking his physicality so the audience has to imagine his deformities.

Guitarist Buckethead has titled several songs referencing Merrick, including "John Merrick- Elephant Bones Explosion" a song and imaginary ride on the album Bucketheadland 2 released in 2003. In 2005 Buckethead released Secret Recipe, a DVD with several bonus MP3 songs. Among them included the song titled "John Merrick Lectures". Two years later in 2008 Buckethead released the album The Elephant Man's Alarm Clock again referencing Merrick this time as an entire album.

Heavy metal band Mastodon has written several songs about Merrick. The last track on all three of their studio albums is a reference to Merrick. They are: on Remission, "Elephant Man;" on Leviathan, "Joseph Merrick" and on Blood Mountain, "Pendulous Skin."

Further reading

  • Treves, Sir Frederick (1923). The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences. Cassell and Co.. OCLC 1546705. 
  • Montagu, Ashley (1971). The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity. E. P. Dutton. ISBN 0876900376. 
  • Howell, Michael; Peter Ford (1980). The True History of the Elephant Man. Allison & Busby. ISBN 0850313538. OCLC 7280384. 
  • Drimmer, Frederick (1985). The Elephant Man. Putnam. ISBN 0399212620. OCLC 11599107. 
  • Graham, P.W.; F.H. Oehschlaeger (1992). Articulating the Elephant Man: Joseph Merrick and His Interpreters. Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 080184357X. OCLC 24430978. 


  1. ^ William Addams Reitwiesner (4 August 2006). "Ancestry of Joseph Merrick". William Addams Reitwiesner Genealogical Services. Retrieved on 2008-06-19. 
  2. ^ Treves, Frederick (1923). The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences. London: Cassell. OCLC 223089477. 
  3. ^ Jeanette Sitton, author (4 December 2007). "Joseph's Autobiography". Friends of Joseph Carey Merrick Foundation. Retrieved on 2008-06-19. 
  4. ^ Tibbles J, Cohen M (1986). "The Proteus syndrome: the Elephant Man diagnosed.". Br Med J (Clin Res Ed) 293 (6548): 683–685. PMID 3092979. 
  5. ^ Beth A Pletcher (29 March 2006). "Proteus syndrome". eMedicine. Retrieved on 2008-06-19. 

External links

NAME Merrick, Joseph
ALTERNATIVE NAMES Merrick, Joseph Carey
SHORT DESCRIPTION Sideshow performer
DATE OF BIRTH August 5, 1862
PLACE OF BIRTH Leicester, England
DATE OF DEATH April 11, 1890
PLACE OF DEATH London, England
Personal tools