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From Leicester to London: the life of Joseph ‘John’ Merrick, the ‘Elephant Man’

From Leicester to London: the life of Joseph ‘John’ Merrick, the ‘Elephant Man’

Joseph Merrick was born in Leicestershire in 1862. Unlike more dramatic representations of his life, starring the likes of John Hurt and Bradley Cooper, Merrick was not born disfigured and took control of his own career in ‘freak shows’ as an adult.

Joseph Merrick’s disability was triggered around the age of 2, when disfigured tumours began to appear on his body. Merrick himself believed an old folk belief that his disfigurement was due to his mother being frightened by an elephant during pregnancy; yet he is now thought to have suffered from Proteus syndrome. Merrick’s disfigurement was degenerative, worsening with age until his job at a Leicester cigar shop became physically impossible for him. Poverty forced Merrick to enter the Leicester union workhouse, ‘Hillcrest’, at the age of 17.
 ​In 1884, Merrick was desperate to find a way out of the depravity of the workhouse. Taking control of his disability as far as possible, he contacted Leicester music-hall owner Sam Torr. The ‘Elephant Man’ was conjured by Merrick himself as he realised he could earn money by charging for the public display of his disfigurement.

Socio-economic conditions had meant that to an extent, Merrick was forced to succumb to the role of his disability within his identity and career. Yet Merrick was far more in control of his life than popular culture would have him; he was the one who contacted his manager, and the showmen he later worked with were not evil and abusive as popular artistic license portrays. Similar to the Whig MP William Hay – who with his hunched back denounced deformity as a representation of a person’s character in 1754 – Merrick dismissed any moral reading of his disability. He often quoted from Isaac Watts’ poem, ‘Tis true, my form is something odd, But blaming me is blaming God.’It was Torr who introduced Merrick to exhibitor Tom Norman, and Norman who brought Merrick to London. Despite increasing health problems, Merrick continued his performance in London opposite the London Hospital where he met Doctor Frederick Treves. Treves took Merrick in at the hospital after his failed attempt at touring Belgium. Public opinion was turning against the display of people with disabilities as ‘freaks’, explaining Merrick’s failure in Belgium and the outlawing of his show in England.

In 1890 Joseph Merrick died unexpectedly overnight. He had been instructed to sleep upright as the weight of his head would crush his windpipe if he lay flat; yet Treves concluded that Merrick must have died accidentally as a result of experimenting with sleep and trying to be ‘normal’.

Merrick was both oppressed and empowered by his disability, and instead of pitying him we should commend his confidence, control, and business-oriented mind while deploring the state of society which forced him to turn to his disability to make a living. The London Museums of Health & Medicine began an annual UK Disability History Month in 2009, which runs from mid-November to mid-December. Their aim is to make much-neglected disability history seen, heard, accepted and celebrated in the mainstream. The month also encourages other museums to review accessibility in their museum service.

A replica of Merrick’s skeleton is on display at the Royal London Hospital Museum and Archives. The original used purely in the medical school and is not displayed publicly. In Leicester, Merrick’s mother is buried at Welford Road Cemetery. The ‘Hillcrest’ workhouse where Merrick was forced to turn too in Swain Street later became a home for the elderly, and its demolition in 1977 was greeted with celebration from many residents.

By Emily Howard, Twitter: @ylimeeh

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