This is part two of a look at the history of Joseph Merrick- aka ‘The Elephant Man.’ The first instalment can be read here.
Following the crackdown on freak shows in Britain, the consortium overseeing Joseph Merrick agreed they should try their luck abroad. A European tour was therefore arranged for ‘The Elephant Man.’
During this period, Joseph was assigned a new manager- a mysterious figure known only as Mr Ferrari.
As they travelled however, it quickly became apparent that freak shows were also falling out of favour on the Continent, with police moving them on wherever an attempt to exhibit the Elephant Man was made.
The Elephant Man alone in Belgium
Joseph and his manager ended up in Brussels, and it was here that Ferrari decided to ditch Joseph without ceremony, slipping away whilst he slept.
If this abandonment wasn’t cruel enough, Ferrari also stole Joseph’s life savings- essentially all of the money he’d accumulated working on the freak show circuit. This totalled £50, a considerable amount at the time which would be equivalent to approximately £6,500 in today’s money.
Fortunately, Joseph was left with a certain item (the nature of which is unknown) which he managed to pawn; a considerable feat considering he was unable to speak clearly, let alone in a foreign language.
Using this cash, Joseph made his way to Ostend where he hoped to take a ferry to Dover.
The authorities at Ostend however forbade him to board, forcing Joseph to turn back and make the 70 mile trek to Antwerp. How he managed to support himself during this period is unknown; one can only hope and imagine that it involved the kindness of strangers.
His ability to contend with this situation is also testament to Joseph’s own personal strength and resilience; the same traits which encouraged him to run away from his abusive home as a child, to survive the workhouse, and to secure professional representation as means of making a career; a fierce, independent spirit which is often overlooked in his story.
At Antwerp, Joseph was more successful and managed to secure passage on a steamer to Harwich, Essex from where he was able to take a direct train to London’s Liverpool Street terminal.
Mobbed at Liverpool Street
The boat train carrying Joseph steamed into Liverpool Street on the morning of the 24th June 1886.
It was rush hour, and the station was packed with commuters. As Joseph disembarked from the carriage, his oversized cloak and sack-like mask quickly drew attention, leading an ever-growing group to swarm around him.
This incident was dramatically reimagined in David Lynch’s 1980 film, The Elephant Man in what many regard to be the most iconic scene.
This sequence was shot on location at Liverpool Street itself which, at the time, had yet to undergo major modernisation meaning it closely resembled the station as Joseph would have experienced it.
Joseph was saved from the mob by two policemen who barricaded themselves alongside him in a third class waiting room.
By now, Joseph’s morale was at an all time low. Penniless, ill and suffering from exhaustion, he collapsed in the corner.
The two bobbies tried to communicate with the swathed stranger but were unable to comprehend his slurred speech.
Luckily, Joseph had managed to hold on to two possessions during his time abroad- the small portrait of his beloved mother, Mary and Dr Treves’ calling card. Upon seeing the card, the police sent word to the Royal London Hospital, requesting the doctor to attend as soon as possible.
When Treves arrived and saw Joseph, he assured police he’d assume full responsibility and took his old acquaintance back to the Royal London in a Hackney Carriage.
The Elephant Man returns to Whitechapel
At the Royal London Hospital, Dr Treves gave Joseph a full examination, the result of which showed that, in the two years since they’d last met, the Elephant Man’s health had suffered a sharp decline.
Despite being only in his 20s, Joseph had developed bronchitis and a heart condition. These were no doubt caused by his deformities which had grown worse, thus placing increased strain upon his body.
Sadly, it was evident Joseph now only had a few years left to live.
This posed a problem. Dr Treves and the staff at the Royal London were desperate to care for Joseph and ensure that his final years would be as comfortable as possible.
However, the Royal London was neither equipped nor permitted to deal with incurable patients. There was a hospital in London capable of caring for Joseph- the Royal Hospital for Incurables in Putney (now the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability)- but they displayed no interest in accommodating such an extraordinary patient.
As the best course of action was ruminated upon, Joseph was provided with an attic room within the Royal London.
Meanwhile, the Royal London Hospital Committee’s chairman, Francis Carr-Gomm, penned a letter to The Times detailing Joseph’s plight and appealing to the public for help.
Carr-Gomm’s letter, which was published in the newspaper on the 4th December 1886, was met with incredible support from the public, with gifts and large sums of money being donated.
The funds raised were more than enough to ensure that the Royal London could provide Joseph with a comfortable home for the rest of his life.
Using the money raised, two rooms in a secluded section of the Royal London Hospital were allocated for Joseph’s use.
Overlooking a quiet courtyard colloquially known by staff as ‘Bedstead Square’, this pair of rooms were swiftly converted into a small apartment which was equipped with all the Victorian home comforts, including a fire place and a sturdy armchair and bed, specially adapted to accommodate Joseph’s awkward sitting and sleeping position.
In his small home, Joseph gained a new found confidence and, being an avid reader, also began to accumulate an impressive library.
He also began to receive VIP visitors who, granted the opportunity for quiet conversation, all found Joseph to be an intelligent, sensitive and extremely cultured young man.
One such meeting involved the Prince (later to become Kind Edward VII) and Princess of Wales. They were accompanied by Lady Geraldine Somerset who recorded the encounter in her diary:
“The Elephant Man… he can never go out, he is mobbed so, and lives therefore a prisoner, he is less disgusting to see than might be, because he is such a gentle, kindly man.”
By all accounts, Joseph never complained about his condition, accepting it with quiet resignation and, in some cases, good humour.
Although a devout Christian who desired a burial in line with his beliefs, Joseph was under no illusion that his status as the Elephant Man meant his body would generate much interest after he died, and once joked about the matter with a visiting surgeon; pondering how he would appear when the time came for him to be preserved in a big bottle of alcohol.
As well as reading and receiving guests, Joseph also enjoyed constructing delicate cardboard models; no easy task considering his disabilities. One such model survives today- a church crafted from a German kit- which can be seen in the Royal London Hospital’s museum.
The Elephant Man at Wimpole Street W1
After a life spent in workhouses, freak shows and hospitals, Joseph was keen to see what a ‘normal’ home looked like.
Dr Treves therefore invited Joseph to spend an evening at his own home; number 6 Wimpole Street (which is now marked by one of London’s Blue Plaques).
According to Treves, Joseph found this luxurious home fascinating and examined every item- from cushions to teacups- with an intense curiosity.
This occasion was portrayed in David Lynch’s film.
The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane
As well as literature, Joseph was also passionate about the theatre- despite never having had the opportunity to attend a performance.
This was remedied during the Christmas of 1887 when he was taken to see a pantomime- Puss in Boots– at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
Joseph’s trip to the theatre required substantial planning, much of which was organised by the actress, Madge Kendal who obtained the use of a private box.
The box in question belonged to Baroness Burdett-Coutts- one of the richest women in Victorian Britain- who had also loaned it to Charles Dickens on many occasions.
For the performance, Joseph was driven to the theatre in his own private carriage and granted use of the Royal Staircase, thus allowing him complete privacy. In the box, he was joined by Dr Treves and a number of nurses from the Royal London Hospital; the entire party all donned in their finest evening dress.
Joseph’s experience at the theatre that night was one of the most joyous moments of his life; for a few hours he was able to sit in total darkness, unobserved and simply enjoy the spectacle which unfolded before him.
The event was beautifully recreated in David Lynch’s film, The Elephant Man.
As well as the theatre, Dr Treves also arranged for Joseph to have excursions to a private cottage in the countryside where he was able to wander about outside without the need for a disguise, picking flowers and observing wildlife.
Sadly, as 1888 and 1889 wore on, Joseph’s health continued to deteriorate.
To sleep like a 'normal person'
Joseph Carey Merrick passed away on the 11th April 1890.
He was 27 years old.
He was found in his small apartment at the Royal London, lying flat on his bed. According to the verdict at the time, it was this position that killed him; the weight of Joseph’s head being enough to dislocate his neck.
Because Joseph was discovered in this position, Dr Treves believed his friend had attempted to “sleep like a normal person.”
However, Joseph was fully aware that to try this would be lethal, leading others to speculate that his death was a tragic accident, perhaps caused when Joseph slipped from a sitting position.
Joseph Merrick's legacy
Following Joseph’s death, plaster casts were made of his body and his skeleton was preserved. Dreadfully twisted and with a misshapen skull, Joseph’s skeleton is a stark reminder of the pain he suffered in life.
His bones are now held by Queen Mary University, London and are not on public display; only those with a medical background may arrange a viewing. A replica of the Elephant Man’s skeleton however may be seen in the Royal London Hospital Museum.
Tissue samples from Joseph’s body was also preserved, although these were destroyed in WWII.
It was only in May 2019 that, thanks to extensive research by author, Jo Vigor-Mungovin, it was discovered that other parts of Joseph’s soft tissue had been buried in an unmarked grave in the City of London Cemetery, Newham.
A small plaque has since been installed in the cemetery to mark Joseph’s plot.
At present, there is also a campaign to erect a statue in Joseph’s home city, Leicester.
During his time at the Royal London Hospital, Joseph wrote many letters to his friends and supporters.
He would sign off his correspondence with the following verse which I think is an appropriate way to conclude our own look at this remarkable gentleman.
“Tis true my form is something odd,
But blaming me is blaming God,
Could I create myself anew,
I would not fail in pleasing you.
If I could reach from pole to pole,
Or grasp the ocean with a span,
I would be measured by the soul;
The mind’s the standard of the man.”
4 thoughts on “The Elephant Man in London. Part Two: Return to the East End”
Such a sad and affecting story, but one that ended as happily as it could for that unfortunate young man.
Best wishes, Pete.
Thanks for the kind words Pete. Couldn’t agree more. Stay well.
Very sad tale but strangely uplifting when you read the verse kind regards Bill
Thanks for the kind words Bill. Yes, I like to see Joseph’s story as an uplifting one; to me he’s an inspiration and a person I truly wish I could’ve met. Stay well.