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The ‘Real’ Elephant Man: A Look at the Life of Joseph Merrick

Joseph Merrick’s extreme physical deformities made him a sideshow attraction in life, and the fascinating subject of posthumous stage and film productions, including the current Broadway show starring Bradley Cooper. Here’s a look at the tragic real life that inspired “The Elephant Man.”

Joseph Carey Merrick (referred to as John in the play) − a deformed wretch forced to earn a living in a freak show who finds safety thanks to a sympathetic doctor and kindness in the loving embrace of a famous actress − has been seared into the public imagination. The play ran for over 900 performances in New York, an impressive number for a nonmusical. Stars such as Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame, Oscar nominee Bruce Davison, and rock icon David Bowie succeeded Tony nominee Philip Anglim who first played the lead role on Broadway and repeated it in an Emmy-winning TV version. 

David Lynch’s unrelated film edition was released in 1980 headlined by Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft and John Hurt in full makeup as Merrick (in the play, the role is played without elaborate prosthetics and the actor contorts his body to suggest the deformities.) The play was presented again on Broadway in 2002 with Billy Crudup and is now celebrating its second Main Stem production with Bradley Cooper twisting his muscular frame to convey Merrick’s condition. Merrick has fascinated thousands including Michael Jackson who reportedly attempted to purchase the Elephant Man’s bones from the Royal London Hospital, where he spent his later years.

Bradley Cooper Photo

Without the use of prosthetics, Cooper contorts his body to suggest Merrick’s deformities in the Broadway production of  “The Elephant Man.” (Photo: Joan Marcus/Broadway.com)

The play and film do closely follow the subject’s real life, but there are significant differences, the most basic being his name. Frederick Treves, the prominent Victorian surgeon who first saw Merrick on display in the back of a shop across the street from London Hospital in 1884, recorded it as “John” rather than Joseph in his 1923 memoir, and the moniker stuck. Pomerance acknowledges the discrepancy in his play by having Treves and Carr Gomm, the head of the hospital, disagree over which name is correct while composing Merrick’s obituary at the show’s conclusion. Treves’ account is one of many retellings including Ashley Montagu’s The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity (1971), and The True History of the Elephant Man: The Definitive Account of the Tragic and Extraordinary Life of Joseph Carey Merrick by Michael Howell and Peter Ford (1980).

Joseph Merrick Photo

Joseph Merrick was photographed for a carte de visite circa 1889. This photograph was first published in “The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity” by Ashley Montagu. (Photo: Wikicommons) 

Another major alteration between reality and drama concerns Merrick’s early life. In the play, Merrick’s manager Ross (a fictional combination of several figures who handled the Elephant Man’s career as a public curiosity) tells Treves the young man’s mother was unable to deal with her physically horrific son and placed him in a Leicester workhouse at the age of three where Ross found him and took him on as his exclusive attraction. Several factual accounts state that Merrick’s deformities were not extreme until about the age of five—he was born a seemingly normal baby in 1862 in Leicester to Joseph and Mary Jane Merrick. But at 21 months, he began developing swelling of his lips, followed by a bony lump on his forehead, which later grew to roughly resemble an elephant’s trunk and loosing of his skin. In later years, his left and right arms began to grow significant differences and both feet were enlarged. To add to his troubles, during his childhood he fell and suffered an injury to his hip which left him permanently lame. The family is said to have believed young Joseph’s condition was caused by Mary Jane being frightened by an elephant at a fairground during her pregnancy.

Despite his physical appearance, the boy and his mother were close. A former housemaid, she was also handicapped and had three additional children, two of whom died at a young age. She herself passed away in 1873 of pneumonia. Her death devastated young Joseph. Not only did he lose his closest friend, but his father, now working as a haberdasher, soon married the strict widow Emma Wood Antill who had two children of her own and demanded young Merrick leave school and earn his living. Amazingly, despite his growing abnormalities, he found employment at a cigar shop, but his right hand soon became too large to manage the delicate work of rolling cigars. In order to earn his keep, his father got Joseph a hawker’s license to sell gloves door to door. But his appearance frightened prospective customers and his sales were dismal. Joseph Senior would often beat his son if he came home empty-handed and the stepmother would deny him full meals unless he had earned enough to pay for them. As result he ran away—or rather walked away—from home more than once.

Fortunately, Joseph’s uncle Charles Merrick, a barber, took his nephew in, but the deformed young man was still unable to make much of a living peddling gloves. After two years, his license to sell was revoked on the grounds he was terrifying the community. With no other resource, he went into the Leicester workhouse system, a Victorian institution for the poor and destitute marked by cruelty. He was 17 at the time, not three as the fictional Ross claims in the play. With the exception of a brief attempt to find work outside, Merrick remained in the workhouse for five years. 

He saw only one way out of his miserable existence. Strangers had always stared at him, so why not get them to pay for the privilege? He contacted music-hall showman and performer Sam Torr who eventually sold his interest in Merrick to exhibitor Tom Norman. It was Norman who brought Merrick to London to be exhibited in the shop opposite the London Hospital where Frederick Treves found him. Showing himself as a terrifying oddity was his only means of financial support and it was probably not a happy way to earn his keep, but, unlike the prayed-upon wretch of the play, Merrick was the one who contacted his manager rather the other way around. Further, Norman disputed his depiction by Treves as a drunken bully, but claimed he treated Merrick fairly and kindly, unlike the brutal Ross.

The Elephant Man Photo

The mask Joseph Merrick wore to cover his facial deformity in public is on display at the Royal London Hospital museum. (Photo: Wikipedia)

After Treves examined Merrick and took photographs, the latter returned to his sideshow, having to move on to Belgium after England made his show illegal. The Belgians were no more hospitable and his Austrian manager (again not the fictional Ross) absconded with his funds and sent him back to his home country. Merrick found his way to the London Hospital and Treves took him in. In a letter to the London Times, Gomm appealed to the general public for the Elephant Man’s support and enough funds were raised to keep him at the Hospital for life.

In the play and film, Merrick meets the actress Madge Kendal, the first woman to shake his hand and the first outside his mother to treat him with kindness. In reality, the two probably never met. According to Howell and Ford’s biography, while Mrs. Kendal did help raise funds for Merrick’s upkeep and frequently sent him gifts including the newly invented gramophone and a photograph of herself, there is no record in her memoirs of a personal encounter. But her husband, W.H. Kendal, an actor and former medical student, did visit Merrick in his early days at the London Hospital. In Treves’ account, Merrick’s first female tete-a-tete, was a brief interview with a pretty friend of the doctor’s named Mrs. Leila Maturin. As in the play, the Princess of Wales did meet with Merrick and sent him a Christmas card every year. One of his chief hobbies was building models of famous sites. His miniature reproduction of Mainz Cathedral, which figures prominently in the play, is on exhibit at the Hospital today.

Joseph Merrick Photo

A miniature church reproduction, built by Joseph Merrick, is also on exhibit at the Royal London Hospital museum. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Art and history agree on Merrick’s death at age 27 which occurred in 1890 when he was discovered lying on his back in his bed. The weight of his head, which would have crushed his windpipe, prevented him from sleeping normally so he had to get his rest sitting up. The death was ruled an accident and Treves concluded that Merrick was experimenting with sleeping. He died trying to be like others.