The Tragic Story of Joseph Merrick: the Elephant Man


Joseph Merrick was born in Leicester in 1862 and from a very early age his body started growing ubnormal lumps on his lips, forehead, neck, both feet and right arm. After his mother died, when he was 9, and his father remarried, Joseph was all alone, since his father and new stepmother rejected him. In 1884, Joseph contacted a showman, who suggested he took part at his show. Joseph was given the stage name ”Elephant Man” and he toured England as a member of a freak show. His life had many sad moments, but he managed to control it and with the help of Dr. Frederick Treves, who later became his good friend, he lived a quiet and uneventful life at the London Hospital.


His beginnings

Joseph was born a healthy child and it wasn’t until the age of two that he started growing ubnormal bumbs on his lips and nose. Later, his feet, head and right arm got extremely enlarged to the point where it was quite hard to walk.


A career in ‘show business’

His career as a member of a freak show lasted for a few years and he managed to tour the East Midlands and Europe.


His first and only photography session

Joseph was visited at one of his shows by surgeon Frederick Treves in 1885 and was asked to be examined and photographed. His entire disfigured body was seen due to the efforts of this doctor.


Abandoned in Europe

When his managers sent him to Europe on tour, his road manager robbed him and abandoned him in Brussels. He managed to return to London, but being unable to communicate, the police couldn’t help him until they found a card of Dr. Treves on him and contacted him.


He finally found a home

Although his case was incurable, Dr.Treves and the London Hospital allowed him to stay there for the rest of his life. He was getting daily visits by Treves and many upper class people, including Alexandra, Princess of Wales, visited him.


Wearing a disguise

His managers had created a large black cloak and a brown cap with a burlap sack for him to wear so that he wouldn’t draw too much attention whenever he needed to travel.


Dr. Treves’ examination

Treves found that the general health of Joseph was fine, although his skin was covered in papillomata, the largest of which exuded an unpleasant smell. There were bone deformities in the right arm, both legs, and, most conspicuously, in the large skull and despite the corrective surgery to his mouth in 1882, Merrick’s speech remained barely intelligible.


His mental state

Treves observed that Joseph was very emotional and showed signs of depression. The absence of women from his life was very important to him and Treves arranged a meeting with a woman at the hospital. It was the first time that a woman shook his hand and smiled at him, not being disgusted by his appearance.


Joseph Merrick died in 1890 after his health had been deteriorating for his last 4 years at the hospital. Treves performed the autopsy and concluded that Joseph tried to sleep laying his head down rather that sitting upright and that dislocated his neck, which caused him to die of asphyxiation.


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