Today is the birthday of Joseph Carey Merrick, sometimes wrongly called John Merrick, who was exhibited a human curiosity called the Elephant Man. He was born in the city of Leicester in 1862. I’m celebrating his birthday today not because he had a brilliant life, he didn’t. Excepting the last four years he had a hell of a time. But he reminds us never to judge people by appearances and that showing a little kindness can make a massive difference to another person.
At first he showed no signs of the deformities that afflicted him in later life. The first signs were a swelling on his lip at about 21 months followed by a bony lump on his head. Then his right arm and leg began to grow to an abnormal size. His family attributed it to the fact that while his mother was pregnant she was frightened and knocked over by a fairground elephant. It was still common in the nineteenth century to believe that the experiences of a pregnant mother could have a lasting physical effect on their children.
Things went reasonably well for young Joseph until his mother died when he was just ten years old. His father remarried and after that he didn’t have such a sympathetic home life. It was hard for him to find employment and he ended up in the workhouse. He concluded that a way out of his awful situation would be to exhibit himself as a human novelty. He wrote to a music hall proprietor that he knew who organised a group of managers for him. His managers advertised him as Half a Man and Half an Elephant, they also produced a pamphlet outlining his life story. As a human novelty, Merrick had to keep on the move. He travelled all around the East Midlands before going to London for the winter season. There he was exhibited in the back of an empty shop in Whitechapel. It was a moderately successful enterprise and Merrick was hoping to save enough from his share of the profits to buy a house for himself.
It was because of the shop’s proximity to the London Hospital that Merrick came to the attention of Dr. Frederick Treves. Treves asked him to visit the hospital to be examined. The doctor described him as shy, confused, not a little frightened. Merrick visited the hospital on several occasions. He was measured, stripped naked, photographed and on one occasion exhibited as part of a lecture. He didn’t enjoy the experience. In addition to the humiliation, because he found speech difficult, the doctor assumed he was an imbecile. He told his manager that he didn’t want to go any more. At least as a human curiosity in a penny gaff in Whitechapel he was allowed to keep his clothes on.
But enthusiasm for human oddities was waning and Merricks managers decided that he should travel to the continent. There he was under the care of a new manager. Whilst in Brussels this man abandoned him after stealing all his savings and Merrick had to make his way, with great difficulty, back to London alone. There he could not make himself understood and wound up in the care of the police. They found Frederick Treve’s calling card among his possessions and contacted the doctor.
Dr. Treves found Merrick’s condition had worsened and he was admitted to the London Hospital where he would spend the last four years of his life. The doctor visited him every day and quickly came to realise that he was an intelligent and sensitive man. Treves noticed Merrick’s affection for his mother, whose photograph he kept, and realised that he had little contact with women since his mother died. Having lived first in the workhouse where accommodation was segregated and then as a travelling exhibit, the only women he saw were either disgusted or frightened by his appearance. Treves asked a lady friend of his, Leila Maturin, to visit Merrick. The meeting was short as he was quickly overcome with emotion. He later told Dr. Treves that she was the first woman ever to smile at him and shake his hand. Merrick’s confidence grew and he received many visitors, high society ladies and gentlemen who brought him books and photographs. He reciprocated with letters and hand made gifts. On one occasion he met Princess Alexandra, Princess of Wales. The experience left him overjoyed. The signed photograph she gave him was his most prized possession.
Merrick spent his time at the hospital reading and making model buildings from cardboard. You can see one of them pictured on the left.. Thanks to his growing circle of friends he was sometimes able to leave the hospital. Someone leant him her theatre box at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and he went to see the Christmas pantomime there. He was enthralled and speechless with delight. He even took occasional holidays, something he had never done before. He spent some time on an estate in Northamptonshire, walking in the woods and picking wild flowers. He befriended a young labourer who described him as an interesting and well-educated man.
His life was short, he died at twenty-seven. But, thanks to the help of his friends and supporters, his final years were filled with delights that he never imagined possible.