This Famous Person Game - November 2016
by Mike McLeod
Joseph Merrick is more commonly known by the name he was billed as in human oddities shows: The Elephant Man. While originally it was thought his condition was caused by elephantiasis (swelling caused by fluid collection as the result of roundworms), today it is believed he may have had neurofibromatosis or Proteus syndrome or both. Proteus syndrome is the over growing of bones, organs, skin and so on. Joseph believed his condition was caused when his mother fell while trying to get out of the way of a stampeding elephant at a carnival when she was pregnant with him.1
Joseph Merrick’s head was 36 inches in circumference, and his right wrist was 12 inches around.2 The weight of his head required him to sleep sitting with his knees drawn up and his head resting on his knees. While attempting to sleep stretched out on his back, he died at the age of 27 on April 11, 1890—the weight of his head caused a vertebra in his neck to break.
Joseph Merrick was born healthy on August 5, 1862 in Leicester, England. His condition began to develop when he was about five years old, but even so. Even so, he was still able to attend school when of age and later, to get a job rolling cigars. That job ended when his right hand became too big to function. His father then employed him as a hawker and a door-to-door salesman, but this also ended in failure. Joseph could not speak clearly because of a growth in his mouth, and his appearance frightened people.
Joseph ran away from home more than once as a teen because of physical abuse there. When he finally succeeded, he found he couldn’t survive on the streets so he ended up in the workhouse. He was there for several years.
Hating the workhouse even more than public ridicule, Joseph wrote to a promoter of human oddities who agreed to exhibit him. He did this for a while in England and then in Belgium, but it did not end well when a different promoter took his money.
Joseph made it back to England, but his appearance incited a mob. The police intervened and then contacted an acquaintance of his, Dr. Frederick Treve, who took him to the Royal London Hospital for medical treatment. When the hospital could no longer provide a room for him free of charge, the Chairman of the Royal London Hospital Carr Grom took up his cause and wrote a letter to a newspaper about Joseph’s need. When it was published, sufficient funds were donated for him to live in the hospital for the rest of his life.
The notoriety from the newspaper article also brought visitors from time to time, most notably Alexandra the Princess of Wales. (She was married to Queen Victoria’s son Albert Edward who was crowned King-Emperor Edward VII at his mother’s passing in 1901. The Princess of Wales became Queen-Empress Alexandra.)
Joseph lived safely in the hospital in his own rooms and enjoyed the company of the doctors and nurses. He was also able to visit the countryside a time or two. He passed away after about four years.
The Elephant Man movie poster that sold for $115 in 2015 at Heritage Auctions. (Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions, HA.com)
Joseph Merrick’s cap and hood.
A bust made of Joseph Merrick’s head sold for £2,000 at JP Humberts auctioneers in 2015. It had been used as a mold to make a mask for the actor John Hurt who starred as Joseph in the movie. Joseph Merrick’s preserved skeleton was used in the making of the mold.3
In 2014, a Victorian tub-back armchair belonging to Joseph was auctioned by Bonhams for $7,353. It was willed to Edward Charles Taylor who is said to have played his violin for Joseph privately in the Royal London Hospital.4
A 1980 The Elephant Man movie poster, 27 x 41 inches, sold for $115 in 2005, and another went for $38 in 2015, both in very fine condition and both at Heritage Auctions.
Janelle Henry of Quinton, Va., correctly identified Joseph Merrick. She picked up Southeastern Antiquing Magazine at The DC Big Flea in Chantilly, Va.
1 Mirror.co.uk, “Elephant Man Joseph Merrick and other 'vintage circus freaks,'” Aug. 4, 2012.
2 Biography.com, “Joseph Merrick.”
3 Northampton-news-hp.co.uk, “One-of-a-kind mould of Elephant Man's head sells for £2,000 at Northants auction” by Nick Bieber, June 18, 2015.
4 Bonhams.com, “Gentleman's Library Sale,” Jan. 29, 2014.
All uncredited photos are public domain, PD-US.