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  • 8/7/2010

Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man

merrick

Joseph Carey Merrick (August 5, 1862 – April 11, 1890), known as "The Elephant Man" gained the sympathy of Victorian era Britain because of the extreme malformity of his body. Due to a mistake in Sir Frederick Treves" book The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences (1923), Merrick is sometimes known as John Merrick.

Life

Joseph Merrick was born in Leicester in 1862 to Mary Jane (née Potterton) and Joseph Rockley Merrick.[1]He was the oldest of three, and he had a younger brother and sister. In an autobiographical note which appeared on the reverse side of his freak show pamphlet, Merrick mentions that his deformity began developing at the age of three with small bumps appearing on the left side of his body. His mother died when he was 12. According to family accounts, she too was "crippled." His father remarried, but his stepmother did not want young Joseph. Obliged to earn a living by selling goods on the street, Merrick was constantly harassed by local children, and tiring of his stepmother"s harassment regarding his inability to bring home a profit, Merrick left home.

Twice ending up in the Leicester Union workhouse, Merrick was unemployable for most of his life. On August 29, 1884, he took a job as a sideshow attraction where he was treated decently and earned a considerable sum of money. At one point during his sideshow career, Merrick was exhibited in the back of an empty shop on Mile End Road in London now called the London Sari Centre, where he was seen by the physician Frederick Treves (later knighted). As Treves recalled decades later in his memoirs, he gave Merrick one of his business cards in the event that Merrick would be willing to submit to medical examination. The two men then went their separate ways. When sideshows were outlawed in the United Kingdom in 1886, Merrick travelled to Belgium to find work. There, he was mistreated and ultimately abandoned by a showman, who stole Merrick"s savings of £50.

After making his way back to London, Merrick inadvertently became the cause of a disturbance in Liverpool Street train station. Suffering from a severe bronchial infection and hampered by his deformities, Merrick was barely able to speak intelligibly. However, he had taken care to retain the business card of Frederick Treves, who was duly summoned by the authorities. In his role as physician at London Hospital, Treves arranged for Merrick to be given permanent quarters there. Merrick thrived in these circumstances.

He became something of a celebrity in Victorian high society. Alexandra, then Princess of Wales and later Queen Consort, demonstrated a kindly interest in Merrick, leading other members of the upper class to embrace him. He eventually became a favourite of Queen Victoria. However, Treves later commented that Merrick always wanted, even after living at the hospital, to go to a hospital for the blind where he might find a woman who would not be repelled by his appearance and love him. In his final years, he found some solace in writing, composing both prose and poetry.

In the summer of 1887, he spent some weeks vacationing at the Fawsley Hall estate, Northamptonshire. Special measures were taken for his journey, and he was forced to travel in a carriage with blinds drawn to avoid attracting attention. He greatly enjoyed his time away from urban London, made many new friends and collected wildflowers to take back with him to London. He visited again in 1888 and 1889. He was cared for at the hospital until his death at the age of 27 on April 11, 1890, apparently from the accidental dislocation of his neck due to its inability to support the weight of his massive head in sleep. Merrick, unable to sleep reclining due to the weight of his head, may have tried to do so in this instance, in an attempt to imitate normal behaviour. The Coroner at his inquest was Wynne Edwin Baxter, who had come to prominence during the notorious Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 when he had likewise presided at the inquests of several of the victims.

Merrick"s preserved skeleton was previously on display at the Royal London Hospital. While his remains can no longer be viewed by the public, there is a small museum focused on his life, which houses some of his personal effects and period Merrick memorabilia.

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Joseph Merrick was originally thought to be suffering from elephantiasis. In 1971, Ashley Montagu suggested in his book The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity that Merrick suffered from neurofibromatosis type I, a genetic disorder also known as von Recklinghausen"s disease. This disease is still strongly associated with Merrick in the mind of the public; however, it was postulated in 1986 that Merrick actually suffered from Proteus syndrome (a condition which had been identified by Michael Cohen seven years earlier).

Unlike neurofibromatosis, Proteus syndrome (named for the shape-shifting god Proteus) affects tissue other than nerves, and is a sporadic rather than familially transmitted disorder. In July 2003, Dr. Charis Eng announced that as a result of DNA tests on samples of Merrick"s hair and bone, she had determined that Merrick certainly suffered Proteus syndrome, and may have had neurofibromatosis type I as well. As it stands, many people still mistakenly refer to his condition as elephantiasis.

In 2002, a television research team, along with genealogists, put out a BBC appeal to trace the Merrick family line. In response to the appeal, a Leicester resident named Pat Selby was discovered to be the granddaughter of Merrick"s uncle. A research team took her DNA samples in order to try to diagnose the condition that caused his deformities. The TV crew also discovered that Merrick"s sister, Marion Eliza, also suffered from a crippling disease called myelitis. Marion Eliza died at the age of 23 of severe food poisoning.

 

Family

Few facts are known about Joseph Merrick"s family. He was named after his father, Joseph Rockley Merrick (March 1838–January 30, 1897), who was born in Leicester to Sarah Rockley, the third wife of Barnabas Merrick (August 23, 1792–12 April 1856). Joseph Sr. married the reportedly "crippled" Mary Jane Potterton on December 29, 1861.

Their oldest son, Joseph, was born on August 5, 1862, in Leicester. Their younger son, William Arthur Merrick, was born on January 8, 1866, followed by their daughter Marion Eliza Merrick on September 28, 1867. William contracted scarlet fever and died on December 21, 1870. Marion Eliza had been disabled since birth, but would survive until March 19, 1891, dying from a seizure.

The Elephant Man, the film released on October 3, 1980, features Mary Jane"s son "John" speaking highly of her. "She has the face of an angel," he says. John (Joseph) is depicted looking at a small picture of his mother very often in the film.

Mary Jane died from bronchial pneumonia on May 19, 1873. Joseph was re-married to Emma Wood Antill on December 3, 1874, and she soon convinced her new husband to send the deformed Joseph away.

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Incorrect name

Early biographies of Merrick inaccurately give his first name as John, an error repeated in many later versions, including the 1980 film The Elephant Man. This error arose and propagated because most of the early works which mentioned Merrick (including Ashley Montagu"s The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity and Frederick Drimmer"s Very Special People) all took their information from the memoirs of Sir Frederick Treves, written many years after his first-hand experience with Merrick. Treves mis-recalled Merrick"s first name as John, causing Montagu and Drimmer to repeat this error in good faith. Montagu"s book, in an appendix, quotes a document by Dr. F.C. Carr Gomm, written shortly after Merrick"s death, in which Gomm correctly identifies Merrick as Joseph; Montagu dismisses this as Gomm"s error. The stage play identifies Merrick as John throughout, except when Gomm (also a character in this play) reads aloud the same document later quoted by Montagu, correctly naming him as Joseph Merrick. In the play, Treves considers this an error, "correcting" Gomm by remarking, "John. John Merrick." The film From Hell also contains what may be a tongue-in-cheek reference to this historical disagreement: in a scene where Merrick is depicted, the character introducing Merrick refers to him correctly as Joseph Merrick but an unseen guest "corrects" him by whispering loudly "John Merrick!" This has been a common mistake for the past century.

 

In popular culture

Following the publication of Montagu"s book, Merrick returned to popular attention around 1980 when two high-profile productions made him their subject. His life story became the basis of the 1979 Tony Award-winning play The Elephant Man, in which he is initially played by Philip Anglim, followed by David Bowie). In the following year, the Academy Award-nominated film The Elephant Man was released, in which he was played by John Hurt. Each production took a different approach to the story. In 1982, the play was broadcast as a television movie.

In the mid-1980s, it was widely reported that singer Michael Jackson wanted to purchase the Elephant Man"s bones. Jackson denied this. In 1993, during an interview at his Neverland Ranch, Michael Jackson told Oprah Winfrey that it was, "another stupid story. I love the story of the Elephant Man, he reminds me of me a lot, and I could relate to it, it made me cry because I saw myself in the story, but no I never asked for the... where am I going to put some bones? And why would I want some bones?" In a 1989 music video for the song "Leave Me Alone" (from Moonwalker), Jackson could be seen dancing alongside a claymation version of Merrick"s bones. This was a piece of sarcastic humour, as other parts of the video dealt with how Jackson was unfairly portrayed by the media.

Merrick has been mentioned many times by Karl Pilkington in the Ricky Gervais show podcasts and the XFM shows. Pilkington talks about his fascination with Merrick and how the film is his favorite of all time. Pilkington wonders why Merrick does not appear in the book Top 50 Freaks of All Time, which he carries around with him wherever he goes.

Merrick has been mentioned in song by a number of artists, including Barenaked Ladies (in the song "If I Had $1000000"), Suede (in the song "Elephant Man"), Mastodon (in the songs "Elephant Man", "Joseph Merrick" and "Pendulous Skin"), The Dandys (in the B-side "Elephant Man"), Bigbang (in the song "The Elephant Man"), Fall of Troy (in the song "Wacko Jacko Steals the Elephant Man"s Bones"), The Bloodhound Gang (in the song "Why"s Everbody Always Pickin" on Me?"), Buckethead (in "The John Merrick Elephant Man Bones Explosion", "The Murder City Devils","Bride of the Elephant Man", and "The Elephant Man"s Alarm Clock"), Immortal Technique (in the song "Freedom of Speech"), Webb Wilder (in "The Olde Elephant Man") and Rufus Wainwright (in "In My Arms").

The Elephant Man is a supporting character in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell"s graphic novel From Hell, and also appears very briefly in the film based on the book, albeit in an entirely different context.

Source: encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com


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