In my last article (the first of its kind since this is a three-part series!), I introduced you all to a pretty amazing figure in the history of mankind. My last article chronicled the Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick’s early life telling about how he developed protrusions all over his body and his struggles as a child (at home and school). Okay…So picking up where I left off, I’m now going to cover Joseph Merrick’s later years as a human curiosity exhibit in this article.
During his time in the Leicester Union Workhouse, Merrick had already decided that his only escape from the workhouse might be the world of human novelty exhibitions. He knew of a Leicester music hall comedian and proprietor named Sam Torr who decided that he could make money exhibiting Merrick, though he insisted that he be a travelling exhibit. On 3 August 1884, Merrick departed the workhouse to start his new career.
The showman George Hitchcock gave Merrick the name ‘The Elephant Man’, advertising him as “Half-a-man and Half-an-Elephant”. They showed him around the East Midlands, including in Leicester and Nottingham, before moving him on to London for the winter season. George Hitchcock then contacted an acquaintance, Tom Norman, who without a meeting agreed to takeover Merrick’s management.
Tom Norman ran penny gaff shops in London’s East End exhibiting human curiosities. When he first saw Merrick, he was dismayed by the extent of his deformities, fearing he might be too horrific to be a successful novelty. Nevertheless, he exhibited Merrick in the back of an empty shop on Whitechapel Road. He installed an iron bed with a curtain drawn around to afford Merrick some privacy. Norman observed that Merrick always slept sitting up, with his legs drawn up and his head resting on his knees. His enlarged head was too heavy to allow him to sleep lying down and as Merrick put it, he would risk “walking with a broken neck”.
Norman decorated the shop with posters that had been created by Hitchcock, depicting a monstrous half-man, half-elephant. A pamphlet name “The Autobiography of Joseph Carey Merrick” was created, outlining Merrick’s life to date. This biography, whether written by Merrick or not, provided a generally accurate account of his life. It contained an incorrect birth date but Merrick had always been vague about when he was born.
Norman gathered an audience by standing outside the shop and drawing a crowd through his showman patter. He would then lead his onlookers into the shop, explaining that the Elephant Man was “not here to frighten you but to enlighten you.” Drawing aside the curtain, he allowed the onlookers—often visibly horrified—to observe Merrick up close, while describing the circumstances leading to his present condition, including his mother’s accident with an elephant. The exhibit was successful to only a small extent, and made money primarily from the sales of the autobiographical pamphlet. Merrick was able to save his share of the profits, hoping to one day buy a home of his own.
(Tom Norman’s shop at Whitechapel road; It now sells saris)
Tom Norman’s shop was directly across the road from the London Hospital, an excellent location for medical students who visited the shop, curious to see Merrick. One house surgeon, Reginald Tuckett was intrigued by Merrick’s deformities and told his senior colleague Fredrick Treves. Treves first met Merrick at a private viewing, before Norman opened the shop for the day. He later wrote in his 1923 Reminiscences that Merrick was “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.” Later that day, he sent Tuckett back to the shop to ask if Merrick might be willing to come to the hospital for an examination. Norman and Merrick agreed. To enable him to travel the short distance without drawing undue attention, Merrick wore a costume consisting of a huge black cloak and a brown cap with a hood that covered his face, and rode in a cab hired by Treves.
(The cap that Joseph Merrick used to wear when in public)
At the hospital, Treves examined Merrick, observing that he was “shy, confused, not a little frightened, and evidently much cowed” leading him to assume that the Elephant Man was an imbecile. He measured Merrick’s head circumference at 36 inches (91 cm), his right wrist at 12 inches (30 cm) and one of his fingers at 5 inches (13 cm) in circumference. He noted that his skin was covered in warty growths, the largest of which exuded an unpleasant smell. His skin hung loose because of weakening of the subcutaneous tissue.
There were bone deformities in the right arm, both legs, and, most conspicuously, in the skull but his left arm and hand, although small, were not deformed. Despite the corrective surgery to his mouth in 1882, Merrick’s speech remained barely intelligible. Apart from his deformities and the lameness in his hip, Treves concluded that Merrick appeared to be in good general health. On one of the visits, Treves had photographs taken and he provided Merrick with a set of copies which were later added to his autobiographical pamphlet. On 2nd December 1884, Treves presented Merrick at a meeting of the Pathological Society of London in Bloomsbury. Eventually, Merrick told Norman that he no longer wanted to be examined at the hospital. According to Norman, he said he was “stripped naked, and felt like an animal in a cattle market.”
As interest in freak shows and human oddities declined and Merrick remained a horrifying spectacle for his viewers, Merrick was now to travel Europe. He was not very successful in Europe, and was deserted by his new manager who stole his £50 (2013 equivalent £4600) in savings. Merrick (now deserted), with the help of the police somehow managed to get back to London. He was admitted to the hospital for bronchitis, washed, fed & put to bed in a room in the attic.
Now, I am still one more article away from completely documenting this really interesting man’s life. With Joseph Merrick’s experiences in the hospital and his legacy still remaining I bid you, adieu.
So till the next article…
Stay tuned, stay curious and keep that head bangin!!!