One of Leicesters’s Famous Residents - Joseph Merrick AKA The Elephant Man
Joseph Carey Merrick was born on the 5th of August 1862 at 50, Lee Street, in Leicester, to Joseph Rockley Merrick and his wife Mary Jane (née Potterton). He was born, apparently healthy, and had no outward symptoms of any disorder for the first few years of his life. He is sometimes named incorrectly as John Merrick. The Merricks had three more children, John Thomas - born 21st April 1864, he died of smallpox on the 24th of July in the same year. William Arthur was born in January 1866 and died of scarlet fever on 21st December 1870 aged four and Marion Eliza born on the 28th September 1867, she was born with physical disabilities and died of myelitis and ‘seizures’ in 1891.
Joseph Merrick was an English man with severe deformities who was exhibited as a human curiosity named the Elephant Man. He became well known in London society after he went to live at the London Hospital. Merrick was born in Leicester, and began to develop abnormally during the first few years of his life. His skin appeared thick and lumpy, he developed enlarged lips, and a bony lump grew on his forehead. One of his arms and both of his feet became enlarged,
during his childhood and he fell and damaged his hip, resulting in permanent lameness. When he was 11years old, his mother died from bronchopneumonia, and his father soon remarried. Merrick left school at the age of 13 and had difficulty finding employment. Rejected by his father and stepmother, he left home. In late 1879, Merrick, aged 17, entered the Leicester Union Workhouse.
In 1884, after four years in the workhouse, Merrick contacted a showman named Sam Torr and proposed that Torr should exhibit him. Torr agreed and arranged for a group of men to manage Merrick, whom they named the Elephant Man. After touring the East Midlands, Merrick travelled to London to be exhibited in a penny gaff shop on Whitechapel Road which was rented by showman Tom Norman. Norman's shop, directly across the street from the London Hospital, was visited by a surgeon named Frederick Treves, who invited Merrick to be examined and photographed. Soon after Merrick's visits to the hospital, Tom Norman's shop was closed by the police, and Merrick's managers sent him to tour in Europe.
In Belgium, Merrick was robbed by his road manager and abandoned in Brussels. Eventually he made his way back to London; unable to communicate, he was found by the police to have Dr. Treves's card on him. Treves came and took Merrick back to the London Hospital. Although his condition was incurable, Merrick was allowed to stay at the hospital for the remainder of his life. Treves visited him daily, and the pair developed quite a close friendship. Merrick also received visits from the wealthy ladies and gentlemen of London society, including Alexandra, Princess of Wales.
Aged 27, Merrick died on 11th April 1890. The official cause of death was asphyxia, although Treves, who dissected the body, said that Merrick had died of a dislocated neck. He believed that Merrick, who had to sleep sitting up because of the weight of his head, had been attempting to sleep lying down to “be like other people”.
The exact cause of Merrick's deformities is unclear. The dominant theory throughout much of the 20th century was that Merrick suffered from neurofibromatosis type I. In 1986, a new theory emerged that he had Proteus syndrome. In 2001, it was proposed that Merrick had suffered from a combination of neurofibromatosis type I and Proteus syndrome. DNA tests conducted on his hair and bones have proven inconclusive.
Joseph Merrick's skeleton is kept in a private room at Queen Mary University of London's medical school.
The remains are not on display to the public but can be viewed by appointment, for example by medical students and medical professionals.
The skeleton is displayed in a glass cabinet, which the university said is to “allow medical students to view and understand the physical deformities resulting from Joseph Merrick's condition”.
A spokesperson for the university said: “It is understood that Joseph Merrick expected to be preserved after his death, with his remains available for medical education and research. As custodians of his remains, the university regularly consults with his descendants over their care”.
'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 used by Joseph Merrick to end his letters, adapted from ‘False Greatness’ by Isaac Watts.