Joseph Merrick

Joseph Merrick

Leicester Union Workhouse, Sparkenhoe Street, Leicester

Name

Relation to Head of Family

Condition as to Marriage

Age last birthday

Rank, profession or occupation

Where born

Frederick French

Inmate

M

67

House Carpenter

Gwineford, Leicester

John Bell

[Imbecile]

Inmate

M

70

Farm Servant

Narbro, Leicester

John Barnwell

Inmate

M

63

Labourer In A Factory

Market Bosworth, Leicester

James Ward

Inmate

M

66

Bricklayer's Labourer

Leicester

William Cufflin

Inmate

M

61

Bricklayer's Labourer

Leicester

George Holloway

Inmate

M

71

Lacemaker

Leicester

John Shelton

Inmate

M

74

Tailor

London, City Of, Middlesex

Charles Linnet

Inmate

M

62

Domestic Servant (Groom)

Kibworth, Leicester

Uriah Simpson

Inmate

M

70

Boatman

Leicester

William Mee

Inmate

M

53

Farm Servant

Evington, Leicester

Joseph Merrick

Inmate

M

19

Hawker

Leicester

John Bryan

Inmate

M

66

Brickmaker

Leicester

John Harrison

Inmate

M

74

Framework Knitter

Leicester

and 792 others, including 31 staff, one with a family of four; and two visitors.

Clutching the tiny photograph of his mother: it is his talisman. He hobbles slowly through the long, airless room, listening to the desultory conversations of the old men around him. He comes to the edge of a table; takes a seat slowly; his hip is inflamed and painful. He leans his good arm on its edge, and beats it in a steady, comforting, disturbing rhythm. He is just five feet, two inches tall. Lines from the Bible filter through his head, images o f green pastures he has never seen. Ernest, the new baby, has usurped his place in Roughton Street, where his uncle lives; his uncle Charley is a barber; he shaves the skin of each customer until it is smooth. His own skin is not smooth. The surface of his skin is ridged, warty, loose, laughable. The bells punctuate the day - it is a Sunday, so they do not yelp with such persistence - but tomorrow they will divide each activity, each rest, each miserable meal, each session "picking oakum" - pulling apart, uncorkscrewing strands of used rope - perhaps managing to extract some hemp. The air will fill with dust the colour of tobacco. It is what convicts - the other oakum-pickers - call "money for old rope." Except that no money is offered in the workhouse.

This is Joseph Carey Merrick, at perhaps the nadir of his life. A century later, he will be known again to a wider public as "The Elephant Man". But for now, at the age of 19, he has been disowned by his father, by his explosive stepmother, Emma, by his sister Eliza, by his grandmother, and even by his Uncle Charley. He finds himself, at the age of nineteen, sharing the Workhouse. "Unable to work", he has finally admitted. It is his second spell in the Workhouse. During the first, he convinced himself that he could once again sell the stockings door to door, carry the gloves from house to house. Mud-spattered children pursued him in the streets, shrieking and dancing. Customers held their noses, and turned away: the fungal infection, the face, the strange outcrops on his outsize skull. He could not hawk a single thing. After two days, he returned to the imposing entrance, with its doorman, with its forms, with its dull fustian uniform.

Of the 768 inmates and assorted vagrants - by no means a full complement, it could take a thousand - almost none was the same age as Joseph Merrick. In the segregated area of the H-block building constructed some thirty years earlier, there were 346 men over the age of 16 who were classified as "inmates". Twenty-eight of these were classified as "imbeciles", including one of only six others in their late teens, a Welsh lad called Arthur Sullivan. More than two-thirds of the men were over the age of 60 - indeed, there were thirty-seven octogenarians, and one man who had passed his ninetieth birthday. Shuffling, broken old men crowded the tables, all set out in rows, when they ate their meals - oatmeal broth, tea, bread and suspicious cheese, watery milk. They had been seen off by the knitting factories, by the hosiery trade, for the most part. Nearly all of them were Leicester men; a few were from a little further afield; there was the occasional Irish accent. Joseph Merrick, his mouth almost obscured by the rolling folds of skin which hung from one side of his face, could barely eat, hardly make himself understood. His voice was sibilant, high-pitched, obscure. That he was better-read than most of them - that he had been taught to read and write by his mother at the Sunday School - passed for nothing. Inside the workhouse, as in the outside world which had rejected him, he was a mere grotesque.

He had been born on August 5th, 1862, the first son of Mary Jane Potterton and Joseph Rockley Merrick. His mother had moved into Leicester from an outlying village at the age of twelve to become a domestic servant - slightly crippled, impressively literate, a devout Baptist (hence Joseph's middle name: after the Baptist preacher, William Carey). His father drove a brougham-for-hire, although, soon after he married, he gained a new job as a warehouseman in one of Leicester's cotton factories. They lived at 50, Lee Street, in a tiny, low-lying house near the canal and the reliable River Soar: reliable in that it could be trusted occasionally to burst its banks and drive foul water up through the sewers. Not until the younger Joseph was about three did his condition give cause for alarm; but at this age, the right side of his face, his right arm, his right hand, his right leg began to distort themselves. He became asymmetrical; his skin grew rough; the bones of his skull developed bossy lumps; "benign" tumours grew to a colossal size. And to add to his suffering, he fell badly, damaging his left hip, leaving him permanently lame and in pain. Merrick's own account of his appearance is as touching as it is harrowing:

The measurement round my head is 36 inches, there is a large substance of flesh at the back as large as a breakfast cup, the other part in a manner of speaking is like hills and valleys, all lumped together...

His parents led him to believe - perhaps they believed it themselves - that his mother had been frightened during pregnancy by an elephant at a local fair, and that Joseph's body had paid the price.

A younger brother, William, was born in January 1866; a sister, Eliza, followed in September 1867. She too was crippled at birth. It is thought that this was a coincidence. By then his father had a new job, stoking one of the factory steam engines, and a small haberdasher's business as well. They were going well. And then came the hammer-blows: William's death from scarlet fever in 1870, aged four; and his mother's death from pneumonia in May 1873. It was her thirty-sixth birthday.

Joseph's father moved; his new landlady, a widow called Emma Anthill, became his wife in 1875. Eliza and Joseph joined step-sisters Annie and Florence; Emma had a new child, Cassandra, with Joseph's father in 1879. By this time of the marriage, Joseph had completed his education, and was required to find work - this he did with Freeman's, a cigar manufacturer. Within two years, the hard task of rolling cigars had become impossible: his right hand would not, could not manage it. His step-mother accused him of loitering, of scrimshanking, of scornfully dishing up half-plates of food - more than he had earned, she sneered. His father seems to have stuck by Joseph, and helped him apply for a license to sell items from the haberdashery (next to which, in Russell Square, they had shifted). It was a catastrophic if well-intended gesture. Most buyers gave Joseph a wide berth; he spent the pitiful proceeds on food; his father thrashed him; he left home; but his uncle Charley, the hairdresser, took him in. Perhaps it was his grandmother, who lived with Charley, who helped this surge of generosity. It gave Joseph two more years in which to struggle with the Leicester public. And then his hawking licence was revoked. His aunt had a new baby, Alice; this was when Cassandra was born to his stepmother. The infants inhabited his universe. Just after Christmas 1879, he entered the workhouse. Three months later, he discharged himself; and two days later, defeated, returned. At least, in 1882, the workhouse loosed him to the local surgeons, who cut away four ounces of the offending flesh across his face.

At this point, into Joseph's naive and impressionable head - perhaps it was an insult, taken as advice - came the idea of an escape-route. A freakshow. There were plenty of them, even if they were starting to go out of fashion. He signed up with Sam Torr - he wrote to him, and Torr came to see him. Joseph exhibited himself in the Midlands. A skilful London entrepreneur, Tom Norman, took the act over. Half-man, half-elephant! That would pull in the punters! And, as Norman insisted in later life, it offered a better existence than the workhouse ever would.

And this is how surgeon Frederick Treves found him, in Whitechapel Road, assuming him, unlike the workhouse authorities, to be a congenital idiot. He presented him as an interesting case to assembled doctors; doubtless, Tom Norman had a cut. He also gave Joseph Merrick his card. Seldom can a card have had so much value. Some months later, Joseph made his boldest break for freedom, crossing back from the continent where he had been exhibited, wearing a black hood almost as likely to draw attention to himself as if he had not been wearing it. He arrived at Liverpool Street Station. He was clutching Treves' card. The police took him to Treves at the London Hospital, and over the next few months, Joseph Carey Merrick was transformed from a corner-store curiosity to the most famous patient in the country.

 

Joseph Carey Merrick, 1888

Treves helped swing the hospital authorities into letting Joseph stay in rooms at the hospital. Slowly it dawned on the surgeon that he had with him, not a specimen, but a human being - child-like and frightened, simple and suggestible - but wonderfully innocent, and capable of great emotion and feeling, of reading, of writing, of communicating. Treves misunderstood his name at first: he caught it as John. He called him John; he wrote, eventually, of him as "John". Joseph took this as a happy nick-name.

Joseph Merrick became a kind of celebrity. He was visited by a stream of wealthy people after the actress Mrs. Kendal prompted their attention. These included the Prince and Princess of Wales (later Edward VII and Queen Alexandra). Treves took him to the theatre to see Herbert Campbell performing in Puss In Boots ; he was lent a country cottage, and for the first time was free to roam through wild flowers, to look into streams. Money was showered on him. Treves bought Joseph a prized possession, at his request: a beautiful case filled with brushes and combs. Treves, who was careful always to keep mirrors away from Merrick, removed the one in the case and substituted cigarettes. Life became a strange dream for Joseph Merrick, who read romances and classics like Emma with abandon. His rooms in the hospital basement became a kind of grotto, filled with the signed pictures of well-wishers. Still he clung to the picture of his mother. Yet he never quite seemed to accept that his fortune would last. He asked if he might be moved to a lighthouse or to a blind home: contradictory cravings for isolation and unconditional love. His death on April 11th 1890, at the age of 27, came suddenly. The weight of his head was thought to have caused it to fall forward and suffocate him; yet he had lived with this long enough always to sleep in a seated position. It is possible that he committed suicide. The uncle - Charley Merrick - with whom he had re-established contact, and of whom he spoke kindly, came to London to identify his body. It is probable that they had met again before this, although there is no definite evidence. Joseph did, however, send a copy of Robinson Crusoe to Ernest, Charley's son, who had been born while Joseph was in the workhouse. His father was still alive, but did not accompany his brother. His sister Eliza died a year later, unmarried.

Joseph Carey Merrick had almost vanished from memory when Bernard Pomerance wrote a best-selling play, based loosely on his life. David Lynch's film followed. Since then, the various diagnoses of his ailments (which were progressive and incurable) have been changed. He is now thought to have suffered from the extremely rare Proteus Syndrome.

After his funeral, his body was passed to Treves, who was the hospital's chief anatomist. Joseph Merrick had donated his body to science. The bones of his skeleton were boiled, bleached, and articulated; the skeleton remains in the hospital's pathology museum. A campaign to place a memorial stone in Leicester was opposed by his barber uncle's great-grandson, who felt that the skeleton itself was the most fitting memorial.

Notes: The only source of the information that Joseph Merrick's mother was crippled is an article in the Illustrated Leicester Chronicle in December 1930, unknown to Ashley Montagu, but disclosed by Howell and Ford. Howell and Ford were unaware of the fact that Merrick's sister was also crippled. Treves himself had been unaware even that he had any siblings. My suggestion that this is coincidental is based on the more recent diagnosis of Proteus Syndrome, which is exceptionally rare. Howell and Ford believed his condition was multiple neurofibromatosis.

It is a curious fact that Herbert Von Thal included Treves' account of Merrick in the fourth volume of the series The Pan Book Of Horror Stories (1963).

Sources:

Criminal Prisons in London and Scenes of Prison Life by H. Mayhew and J. Binny,1862

The True History Of The Elephant Man by Michael Howell and Peter Ford, Allison and Busby, 1980 (this includes Merrick's own short autobiography, and Treves' later account of Joseph Merrick).

The Elephant Man : A Study in Human Dignity, by Ashley Montagu, Allison & Busby, 1971 (this includes ten appendices, including the first accounts by Treves to the Pathological Society, and The Times account of the inquest in 1890).

www.workhouses.org.uk (Peter Higginbotham)

The Leicester Mercury

Monsters Of Self-Destruction by Barbara T. Gates, Princeton University Press, 1988

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