Joseph Merrick, the “Elephant Man”

Speaker: Jo Mungovin

19 January 2021

The speaker at our January meeting was Jo Mungovin whose talk on Joseph Merrick “the Elephant Man” was very informative. Those of us who had been brought up to believe that Joseph was a ‘freak’ whose life revolved around him being exhibited at Penny shows were soon to be told the true story.

Joseph‘s grandfather moved to Leicester in 1837. Later his son Joseph married Mary Jane. During her pregnancy Mary Jane attended a May Fair where, rumour has it, she was frightened by an elephant which affected the foetus she was carrying. People actually believed that the various afflictions which Joseph suffered were the result of this frightening encounter.

The resulting baby, our Elephant Man, was born with many physical defects. Young Joseph‘s father was ambitious and soon moved with his wife and young family into a different house. His father owned two shops and was a successful man.

There was no indication that young Joseph was bullied or teased; many children had physical difficulties at that time. His major trauma was his mother’s death when he was seven years old. His father’s subsequent remarriage did not help. Joseph‘s fingers were thick; he could not do fiddly factory jobs and was beaten at home if he failed to earn money. Finally Joseph moved to his uncle’s house for two years but when he was 17 he took himself into the infirmary workhouse to join its 1200 residents. He spent four years there, doing dirty and demeaning jobs and eating very poor food. During that time he developed a huge growth in his mouth which required an operation.

Finally, he contacted Sam Torr, a music hall proprietor who agreed to use Joseph as an exhibit at one of his Penny Shows. Later, he went to Nottingham and then to London where he was befriended by Tom Norman. Tom exhibited him for money but also showed him kindness. Joseph supplemented his income by writing his own pamphlet which he sold. In the mid 19 century there was no legislation to stop exhibits of fat ladies, giants, dwarves etc. At this time Joseph was described as being “a poor fellow, deformed head, skin thick and crinkly, hanging in folds”.

Later Dr Frederick Treves who worked at the Royal London hospital, began to take an interest in Joseph.  The doctor had a scientific obsession with the freaks on display at the shows. He persuaded Joseph to attend sessions at the hospital where he was part of medical demonstrations. Joseph finally refused to continue and Dr Treves closed down the Penny Shows.

From 1885 onwards Joseph’s life began to change. His new manager designed a new hat and a facial hood for him so that he could appear in public without ridicule. He was even exhibited at the world fair on the continent where at times over 400 indigenous people were on show. However, the manager of the foreign tour stole the money Joseph had managed to save and abandoned him.  Joseph returned, penniless to the London Hospital. He was given clothes and his own lodging in Bedstead Square. He was well cared for and doctors visited him daily. They even discussed how he would look preserved in alcohol!

In 1887, after opening the new hospital building, the Prince and Princess of Wales met him and subsequently sent him food and visited him. He made money by weaving baskets ; had three holidays in the country and even wrote letters about his life experiences. His confidence increased but, by 1889, his health was failing. He had bronchitis, a weak heart and a growth in his mouth was increasing. He attended Mass twice on April 6th 1890 and, early on April 7th, when visited, he seemed in good health. Sadly at 3:30 pm he was found dead as a result of asphyxiation. He was 27 years old.

His body was handed over to Dr Treves at the Royal London Hospital. The flesh was removed and his bones were bleached.

In May 2019 Joseph’s final resting place was finally discovered in an unmarked grave at the City of London Cemetery.  Later, a plaque was placed there including the dates 1862-1890. There is a replica of his skeleton, his hat and his hood, plus a letter, and a model of the church he had made from cardboard, on show at the Royal London Museum. No DNA could be retrieved from Joseph’s bones and there is still no medical diagnosis of his condition.

Jo described a human, not a freak, determined to be independent despite all the severe difficulties imposed by his physical condition.

If this story intrigues and interests you, please see Jo Mungovin’s book “Joseph:  The Life, Times and Places of The Elephant Man”, which includes Joseph’s 22 years in Leicester.