(Please note, this article contains images of ‘The Elephant Man’; Joseph Merrick and his deformities which some readers may find upsetting)
Earlier this month, the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel unveiled its recent £650 million redevelopment.
An East-End landmark, the hospital has original buildings dating back to the 18th century, so the expensive revamp was very much needed.
Covering an area equivalent to 40 football pitches, the Royal London employs 3,000 staff and contains no less than 26 operating theatres.
During the re-fit, three tall towers were added; two being 16 storeys in height, the other 10 storeys.
Constructed mainly from glass, the towers are state-of-the-art; designed to maximise light and provide beautiful views over the City, thus ensuring that the environment is as pleasant as possible for the patients being treated within.
The Royal London is also home to London’s Air Ambulance, and the roof of one of the 16 storey towers contains a helipad for this purpose.
In short, the extensive updates have ensured that the Royal London is now an ultra-modern, cutting edge facility which can continue to treat patients as it has done for 100s of years.
Over the years, countless patients have passed through the Royal London.
But perhaps the most famous person to spend time there was Joseph Merrick; a young man from the late Victorian era who suffered from horrendous disfigurements.
Most people will have heard of Joseph Merrick (also mistakenly called ‘John’ in some accounts- including the 1980 movie version of his life) at some point in their lives… although it is usually by his more descriptive moniker:
‘The Elephant Man.’
Born in Leicester in August 1862, Joseph Carey Merrick was a healthy baby, displaying absolutely no sign of the terrible disease which would come to define his life.
However, symptoms began to develop in early childhood.
At 21 months old, swellings began to develop on Joseph’s lips and, by the time he was 5 years old, his skin had roughened and loosened. A bony lump had also developed on his forehead.
To add to his woes, Joseph also suffered an accident at some point in his boyhood, causing damage to his left hip; a mishap which left him with a limp for the rest of his life.
Despite his poor medical condition, Joseph still managed to attend school as a regular child.
Joseph was very close to his mother, Mary Jane Merrick; a stable figure in his early life who provided him with much needed love and affection.
Tragically, in 1873 when Joseph was 11 years old, Mary contracted pneumonia and died.
Just over a year later, Joseph’s father re-married a woman named Emma Wood Antill, and the new family moved in together.
Sadly, neither his father nor new step-mother displayed any sympathy towards the deformed child, constantly chiding him for being a burden.
Joseph himself would later describe the unhappy situation in a brief autobiography:
“The greatest misfortune of my life… the death of my mother, peace to her, she was a good mother to me. After she died my father broke up his home and went to lodgings: unfortunately for me, he married his landlady; henceforth I never had one moment’s comfort, she having children of her own, and I not being so handsome as they, together with my deformity, she was the means of making my life a perfect misery…”
As a result of these conditions, Joseph ran away from home on several occasions, but was always quickly tracked down by his father.
At the age of 13, Joseph secured a job rolling cigars in a factory, but this employment only lasted for two years as increased swelling on his right hand made the work practically impossible.
Frustrated by his inability to earn his keep, Joseph’s father secured a hawker’s licence for his son; thus permitting him to sell items of haberdashery door to door.
However, this calling also proved unsuccessful.
Due to his increasing facial deformities, many people were horrified by Joseph’s appearance, so much so that potential customers wouldn’t even answer the door. Those who did found it difficult to understand the young salesman, as the growths around his face and mouth were having an impact on clear speech.
As he shuffled his unprofitable days around Leicester, Joseph found himself being increasingly followed and harassed by onlookers who were only too keen to stare and taunt.
Through no fault of his own therefore, Joseph Merrick was unable to maintain stable employment… and finally ended up resigning himself to that much dreaded Victorian institution- the workhouse.
On to London
Joseph remained in the Leicester Union Workhouse for four years.
As he turned 20, it began to dawn upon him there was perhaps money to be made from his deformities, via one of the more dubious Victorian pastimes- the ‘Freak Show’.
With this in mind, the young Merrick wrote to Sam Torr; a local comedian and owner of Leicester’s ‘Gladstone Music Hall’, which was situated a mere 50 yards from where Joseph had grown up.
After receiving the letter, Sam Torr visited Joseph and, upon seeing his appalling deformities, agreed that there was indeed cash to be made.
A consortium of three managers was quickly put together and it was this group who gave Joseph his now infamous pseudonym; ‘The Elephant Man.’
In August 1884, Joseph Merrick finally departed the workhouse, his new career as a showpiece quickly taking him on tour.
During his time in the travelling show, Joseph befriended a fellow ‘freak’; Harry Bramley, who was a midget.
Although small in stature, Harry was a noted boxer. He was also fiercely protective of his new pal.
Apparently, on a visit to Northampton, a gang of local hooligans began to harass Joseph in the market square…. needless to say, wee Harry was on hand to promptly lay the ring leader out!
In November 1884, ‘The Elephant Man’ was brought to London, where his management was transferred to Tom Norman; a seasoned showman in charge of a number of East-End based ‘Penny Gaffs’; cheap places of theatrical entertainment specifically aimed at the lower classes.
Tom Norman had also operated similar venues in Islington and Hammersmith.
One of 18 children, Tom was a flamboyant character who knew how to keep on his toes.
Nicknamed ‘The Silver King’ (on account of the numerous medallions and American coins which he sported upon his braces), Tom was always looking for a quick way to make money. He once lost his entire life savings at Royal Ascot, forcing him to walk all the way back to London!
The East End of London into which Joseph Merrick arrived was at the height of its Victorian notoriety; a vast slum and by-product of the booming Industrial Revolution.
Overcrowding had reached epic proportions, and this was coupled with dreadful sanitation, rampant disease, widespread, casual violence, chronic alcoholism and depressingly high rates of mortality.
The East End’s infamous ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders were only four years away- indeed, Joseph Merrick was resident at the Royal London Hospital when the nearby, bloody spree occurred, and would have been very much aware of the sensation surrounding the serial killings.
On Show in Whitechapel
The Elephant Man was exhibited in a run-down building on Whitechapel Road.
Joseph Merrick also slept at the location, and thus came to call the place home for several months.
The premises are still in existence today, although nowadays the building facilitates the much calmer business of selling sarees to the local Bangladeshi community.
On the crowded pavement outside this East End building, Tom Norman would hustle for business, aided by a large, painted canvas which had been provided by Merrick’s previous managers:
Tom actually found the wild slant of this advertisement rather distasteful, especially as he’d quickly noted how gentle-natured Joseph Merrick actually was.
But, for the moment it was all he had to work with, and overcame his dislike for the poster’s sentiment by putting a twist on the words; adopting the cry that the Elephant Man was here “not to frighten you… but enlighten you”
Once a large enough crowd of punters had been assembled, the showman would lead the gathered group into the shop where, towards the back, Joseph Merrick sat hidden behind a curtain.
Before revealing the Elephant Man, Tom would spin out his well-rehearsed spiel:
“Ladies and gentlemen…. I would like to introduce Mr Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. Before doing so, I ask you please to prepare yourselves- brace yourselves up to witness one who is probably the most remarkable human being ever to draw the breath of life.”
The curtain would then be drawn aside and Joseph subjected to the stares, shrieks and gasps to which he had become so sadly accustomed.
The freak show was situated directly opposite the Royal London- one of the largest hospitals in the UK, and the main source of treatment for the poverty-stricken East End, typically dealing with cases involving injuries from vicious machine accidents and drunken brawls.
At the Royal London Hospital there worked one Frederick Treves; a doctor who, at the age of 31, was already a major force in his field.
A number of employees at the Royal London had ventured across the road in their spare time to witness the Elephant Man and, upon hearing their reports, Dr Treves’s instinctive medical curiosity was instantly aroused.
Contacting Tom Norman, Dr Treves arranged a private viewing one morning before the show opened up to the public.
Years later, Dr Treves recorded his blunt reaction upon first seeing the horrendously deformed young man, describing what he saw as;
“The most disgusting specimen of humanity that I had ever seen… at no time had I met with such a degraded or perverted version of a human being as this lone figure displayed.”
Dr Treves suggested that a medical examination should be carried out, and both Joseph and Tom agreed.
Although the journey to the hospital was barely a two-minute walk, Dr Treves was able to observe the great lengths to which the Elephant Man had to go in order to convey himself in public- Joseph possessed a set of clothing which was able to cover him from head to toe; a huge, black- almost theatrical- cloak and a custom-made cap, large enough to cover the huge swellings upon his head.
Attached to the cap was a simple mask; essentially a hessian sack, which covered Joseph’s face entirely, but had a slit cut out for his eyes. His feet were swathed in large carpet slippers.
In 1980,‘The Elephant Man‘; the much acclaimed film version of Joseph Merrick’s life was released in cinemas.
Directed by David Lynch and with the role of Joseph brilliantly acted by John Hurt, the film gave a very accurate portrayal of the way in which Joseph Merrick dressed; the image also being famously displayed on posters promoting the movie:
For his short trip to the Royal London Hospital, Joseph also used a cab- during his time in the city, he would in fact become a regular customer of London’s Hansom cabs thanks to the privacy which they afforded.
At the Royal London, Dr Treves measured and examined Joseph’s various abnormalities, also noting that the patient was “shy, confused, not a little frightened, and evidently much cowed.”
These traits, coupled with Merick’s great difficulty in speaking clearly, initially led Dr Treves to conclude that the Elephant Man was also an “imbecile”- an assumption which he would later discover to be grossly untrue.
Shortly after this examination, Joseph agreed to be presented as a living specimen to the ‘Pathological Society of London‘, which was located on Berners Street in Bloomsbury; a plush world away from the poverty-riddled East End.
This event was depicted in The Elephant Man film:
After several more examinations, Joseph decided to stop his visits.
According to Tom Norman, Merrick stated that he did not like being stripped naked; the process making him feel like “an animal in a cattle market.”
Despite this sentiment, he maintained Dr Treves’s calling card.
Mainly due to the nature of his business, some historical accounts have been unkind to Joseph Merrick’s London manager, Tom Norman.
However, although the nature of the freak show business inevitably necessitated Joseph being exploited, it seems that Joseph and Tom maintained a good working relationship, each holding a mutual respect during their few months together.
Tom split all of the takings 50/50, allowing Joseph to earn more money than he’d ever done in his life.
Tom also grew rather protective of his partner. Early on in their relationship, the showman was dismayed to see that Joseph wasn’t even able to lie down and sleep properly.
This was a problem which plagued Joseph throughout his life; to lie down like a ‘normal person’ would risk death, the sheer weight of his head being liable to either suffocate him or break his neck.
Instead, he had to either prop himself up, or sleep with his head on his knees.
This unorthodox style of sleeping was demonstrated in John Hurt’s portrayal of the Elephant Man:
Attempting to solve this uncomfortable problem, Tom Norman employed a carpenter to construct a special frame, which it was hoped would be able support Joseph’s head whilst he slept.
Although the attempt was sadly unsuccessful, it demonstrates that an intention of care and concern was evident.
Robbed and Alone
Despite the apparent popularity of the freak shows, overall public attitudes to such displays were in fact beginning to take a turn.
Considered vulgarities, many of the shows were starting to get shut down by police, leading Tom Norman to become anxious that his ‘half-man, half-elephant’ show would be next.
Merrick’s management team therefore decided to send the exhibition to Continental Europe.
However, once out of the UK, it transpired that freak shows abroad were also on the wane, and the Elephant Man experienced the same increasing hostility which was brewing back home.
Joseph’s show ended up in Belgium, where he was granted yet another manager. Although the identity of this individual is unknown, one thing is certain- Joseph’s new administrator was a heartless crook.
Whilst on show in Brussels, this mysterious character, realising that the Elephant Man display was losing profit, abandoned his protégé.
Even worse, he stole Joseph’s life savings; essentially all of the money which he’d earned whilst under Tom Norman’s wing. The sum- £50- was a considerable amount, equivalent to some £4,000 in today’s money.
Alone in a foreign land, unable to speak clearly- let alone in an alien language- and with no friends and no currency, Joseph was left to fend for himself, his only protection coming from huddling himself within his large cloak and mask.
Somehow managing to pawn the few items he owned, Joseph made his way to Ostend, where he attempted to board a ferry to Dover… however, the ship’s captain refused to let bedraggled figure onboard.
Joseph was now forced to make a further trek to Antwerp.
Here he had more success, managing to secure a place onboard a ferry (known as a ‘Railway Steamer’) to Harwich in Essex.
Arriving back on British soil on 24th June 1886, Joseph quickly progressed to the next stage of his journey; a connecting train ride from the port to London’s Liverpool Street station… and it was here, by now utterly demoralised, that he was about to encounter one of the most distressing events in his turbulent life…
Mobbed at Liverpool Street
The train from Harwich steamed into the huge, London terminal on a Thursday morning; rush hour. As Joseph disembarked, his mask and large cloak immediately drew attention, with people pointing and loud comments being muttered.
Like a snowball effect, the crowd grew larger, people curious to see what all of the commotion was.
Before long, Joseph was swamped with unwanted attention, cowering and terrified in the midst of it all.
He was rescued by two police officers, who barged their way through the deluge and pulled him towards the safety of a third-class waiting room.
Once inside the barren cubicle, the policemen had to barricade the doors, as the crowd continued to swell, pressing up against the windows, eager to catch a glimpse of the supposed strange creature.
By now, utterly dejected and exhausted, Joseph simply couldn’t face anymore, and collapsed in a corner of the waiting room.
In David Lean’s film, Joseph’s nightmare at Liverpool Street was a key moment and, although a dramatized version, the famous scene is an effective depiction of the mob mentality which hounded him that awful morning.
The following clip was filmed on location at Liverpool Street station itself which, in 1980, had yet to be modernised, and still retained the same Victorian aura through which Joseph himself had been pursued decades before:
The police attempted to help further, but the two kindly bobbies were unable to understand what the stranger was saying, especially as Joseph was now also suffering from bronchitis; the gasping from which did little to help his already tortured speech.
Amazingly, salvation came in the form of Dr Treves’s calling card- which, along with the small and much cherished portrait of his mother, was one of the only items Joseph had managed to cling onto during his travels across Europe.
Seeing the name and address, the police quickly sent word to the Royal London, requesting the doctor attend.
When Dr Treves arrived at Liverpool Street, the inquisitive crowd had grown so large, that he had considerable difficulty in forcing his way through.
Upon re-discovering the Elephant Man, the doctor assured the police that he would assume full responsibility for the unfortunate fellow.
Joseph was led to a hansom cab and promptly rushed back to the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, where the next stage of his tumultuous life was about to begin.
(Please note, this article contains images of ‘The Elephant Man’; Joseph Merrick and his deformities which some readers may find upsetting)
Joseph Merrick returns to the East End
Following his ordeal at Liverpool Street Station, Joseph Merrick was taken by cab to the Royal London Hospital.
Once there, he was examined thoroughly and Dr Treves discovered that, in the two years since they’d last met, the Elephant Man’s condition had grown worse. To compound his woes and despite being only in his 20s, Joseph had also developed a heart condition.
It became clear that his deformities were incurable, and that the severe complications and strains which they placed upon his body meant that Joseph only had few years left to live.
This posed a problem: Dr Treves and the staff at the Royal London were desperate to look after Joseph and ensure that his final years would be as comfortable as possible. However, the hospital was not equipped or permitted to deal with incurable patients. There was indeed a separate institution for terminal cases- but they wanted nothing to do with Joseph’s case.
Eager to resolve this problem, Francis Carr Gomm; chairman of the hospital’s committee, wrote a detailed letter to The Times newspaper, which was printed on the 4th December 1886.
In it, he outlined Joseph’s case and appealed for public donations.
Such an appeal had never been undertaken before.
As Carr Gomm himself stated in his letter, “some 76,000 patients a year pass through the doors of our hospital, but I have never before been authorized to invite public attention to any particular case, so it may well be believed that this case is exceptional.”
The plea was a huge success. The Victorian public dug deep and, in no time at all, enough money was raised to enable the Royal London to provide Joseph with a home for the rest of his life.
A new home in London
Now equipped with adequate funds, two rooms in a secluded section of the hospital were selected for Joseph’s personal use.
Overlooking a quiet courtyard known as ‘Bedstead Square’, the pair of rooms were skillfully converted into a little apartment for Joseph. The apartment was equipped with all the usual Victorian home comforts, including a fireplace and stout furniture (Joseph’s bed and armchair being custom-built to make his distressed body as relaxed as possible ).
At first, Joseph remained a shy and nervous figure.
Dr Treves noted that, whenever a stranger came to visit the Elephant Man, he would cower like a child and even shake visibly.
On one occasion, when he was introduced to a female guest- who took his hand, smiled naturally and made no mention of his deformities- Joseph broke down in tears, explaining that no woman (apart from his beloved mother who had died years before), had ever before treated him with such kindness.
However, as the weeks progressed, Joseph’s new found dignity and his popularity amongst the hospital’s staff began to draw him out of his shell, enabling his confidence to gradually develop.
No longer did people see him as a freak to gawp at. Instead, visitors enjoyed nothing more than popping by for a chat; those who did discovering that Joseph was a learned, sensitive, intelligent man, capable of conversing on a wide variety of topics. An avid reader, he also began to accumulate an impressive library.
Those who came to know Joseph were especially taken by his intellect, immense politeness, piety and overall gentle nature.
Joseph even had the pleasure of meeting the Prince (later to become King Edward VII) and Princess of Wales; an event which saw the young man beside himself with excitement.
The Royal pair were accompanied by Lady Geraldine Somerset, who recorded the event in her diary:
“The Elephant Man… he can never go out, he is mobbed so, & lives therefore a prisoner, he is less disgusting to see than might be, because he is such a gentle, kindly man….”
By all accounts, the Elephant Man never displayed any bitterness about his condition, accepting it with quiet resignation and good humour- for example, he once enjoyed a joke with a visiting surgeon, stating that he often wondered how he would appear when the time came for him to be preserved in a big bottle of alcohol!
Joseph was clearly under no illusion that, when he died, his body was destined to become a medical artefact.
During his time at the Royal London Hospital, Joseph also enjoyed constructing intricate, cardboard models; not an easy task considering his disabilities.
He would give these models as thank-you gifts to the numerous guests who took time to visit him (and who themselves presented him with gifts).
One such model survives to this day and can be seen in the Royal London Hospital’s small, but excellent museum and archive…
Constructed from a German craft-kit, this model church was given by Joseph to Mrs Madge Kendal; a popular actress who did much for the Elephant Man (in David Lean’s film version, Mrs Kendal was played by Anne Bancroft).
Joseph goes ‘Up West’
An anomaly of Joseph’s life was that, despite his intelligence, his condition dictated that he was rather naïve to the outside world; for it was a place which, after years spent in workhouses, penny-gaffs and hospital rooms, he’d had little chance to explore openly.
On the rare occasions he had ventured out of course, he’d done so swathed in disguise, and was more concerned with avoiding unwanted attention rather than examining what lay around him.
Joseph’s imagination was stoked by his extensive reading, and he became increasingly inquisitive of the world which lay beyond his hospital suite. One day, he told Dr Treves that he was keen to see a ‘real’ house (in other words, the kind of wealthy home which he’d read so much about in his large collection of novels).
Dr Treves therefore arranged to take Joseph to his own home, which was at number 6 Wimpole Street; the two friends travelling to Bloomsbury in Joseph’s preferred method of transport; the hansom cab.
Once at the Wimpole Street residence, Joseph was fascinated by every aspect of Dr Treves’s house, and spent much time going from room to room, examining everything from cups to curtains with a curiosity so intense it bordered on the comical.
He was, however, somewhat puzzled that there were no liveried footmen or servants in attendance; his expectations having being influenced somewhat by the work of his favourite writer; Jane Austen!
Joseph was also fascinated by the idea of the theatre and, one special evening during the Christmas of 1887, he was taken to see a pantomime; Puss in Boots at the Theatre Royal, Dury Lane in Covent Garden.
Unsurprisingly, Joseph’s trip to the theatre required much planning.
The main organisation was carried out by Madge Kendal, who arranged for Joseph to have his own private box.
The box in question belonged to Baroness Burdett-Coutts; one of the richest women in Victorian Britain and a prolific philanthropist (to this day, Coutts Bank still handle the Royal Family’s accounts).
Baroness Coutts had also been a close friend of Charles Dickens- in fact the same box which Joseph occupied during his night at the theatre had also been loaned to the great author and his family some years before.
For the performance, Joseph was brought to the theatre in his own private carriage. He was also permitted to use the secretive, Royal staircase, thus allowing him to maintain total privacy.
In the box, he was joined by his now close friend, Dr Treves, and a number of nurses from the Royal London Hospital.
The small group, all donned in their finest evening dress, sat and waited for the chatter to recede, the lights to dim and the curtain to rise… and, once the show commenced, Joseph quickly found himself in a state of utter joy.
Sitting in the absolute darkness, Joseph, for a few wonderful hours, was able to loose himself in fantasy; to forget his awful condition and sit amongst 100s of people without attracting a single stare.
His trip to the Covent Garden theatre was portrayed in the movie version of his life. As the following clip shows, this particularly moving scene demonstrates the pure delight and wonder which Joseph experienced that special night:
Following his trip the Theatre Royal, Joseph would talk to friends endlessly about the pantomime which had enthralled him for weeks afterwards, often becoming so enthused, that he would describe the pantomime characters as if they they were real beings rather than actors.
His evening spent at Covent Garden had clearly been one of the happiest, most liberating moments in his dreadfully harrowed life.
To ‘sleep like a normal person’…
As 1888 and 1889 wore on, Joseph’s condition began to deteriorate.
Thankfully though, he was granted further happiness when Dr Treves arranged for Joseph to spend six weeks at a private cottage in the countryside; an excursion which the Elephant Man had often dreamt of undertaking.
Whilst in the countryside, Joseph took delight in being able to wander outside in the sunshine without the need for his mask and cloak; picking flowers, listening to bird-song and observing wildlife.
An avid letter-writer, Joseph would keep his friend, Dr Treves updated about his observations.
Sadly, despite his prolific letter writing, only one example of Joseph’s correspondences is known to exist. It was addressed to Mrs Leila Maturin; the woman whose kindness and natural smile had caused him to weep on their first meeting.
Alongside his mask and model church, this rare and precious object can be viewed at the Royal London Hospital’s museum:
As the distressing disease wore on, Joseph’s body began to age rapidly.
When Dr Treves had first examined him only four years previously, the Elephant Man was, despite his deformities, clearly a young man in otherwise relatively good health.
However, by late 1888, Joseph was plagued by bronchitis and heart problems, and his advancing growths were beginning to take their cruel toll. Dr Treves was forced to witness his friend’s accelerating decline, helpless.
Shortly after the Easter of 1890, in which he’d happily been able to attend church services in the hospital’s chapel, Joseph Merrick died.
He was discovered at 1.30pm on the 11th April 1890, lying flat across his bed.
It is generally believed, as Dr Treves suggested, that Joseph died after attempting to lie down and sleep like a ‘normal person’; a desire which he had often expressed.
By this point, Joseph’s head had grown even larger, and the subsequent weight broke his neck, leading to a mercifully quick, painless death.
He was just 27 years old.
* * *
The actual condition which Joseph Merrick suffered from is still debated.
The common theory is that he suffered from ‘Neurofibromatosis Type 1’. Another belief is that the cause was ‘Proteus Syndrome’, whilst others suggest the Elephant Man’s condition was an unlucky combination of the two.
In 2003, the Discovery Health Channel screened a documentary entitled ‘The Curse of the Elephant Man’.
Collating information about Joseph, including existing photos, DNA samples, access to his skull and cooperation from living ancestors, the team behind the programme were able to create a computer generated image, which estimated what Joseph would have looked like had he not been struck down by the awful conditions which plagued his life…
To this day, Joseph Carey Merrick, the gentle, East Midland lad who became an adopted Londoner, continues to inspire people with his story, his tenderness and his humanity.
I will leave you with a poem, compiled by Joseph himself, which he often used to sign off the many letters he penned to supportive friends….
“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.”
(Many of the items related to Joseph Merrick’s life which are featured in this article can be viewed at the Royal London Hospital Museum; more information on which can be found here)
If you wish to learn more about Joseph Merrick, an excellent website can be found here