On the 13th March 2020 David Lynch’s masterpiece The Elephant Man was due to be re-released in cinemas, fully restored in 4k definition to honour the film’s 40th anniversary. Sadly, few showings were able to take place due to the onset of the Covid 19 crisis.
Shot in atmospheric black and white, The Elephant Man is based upon the true life story of Joseph Merrick who, in the late 19th century, became known for the rare and distressing deformities which twisted his body beyond recognition.
Although Victorian attitudes focused upon his extraordinary appearance, those who came to know Joseph found him to be a sensitive, cultured and acutely intelligent soul; traits which are beautifully conveyed in the film by the late Sir John Hurt.
Towards the end of his short life Joseph resided in the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel and it was there, on the 11th April 1890, that he passed away.
2020 therefore also marks the 130th anniversary of this remarkable man’s death.
Over the next two posts I would like to share with you the story of Joseph’s life, and take you on a tour of the numerous sites in London with which he became associated.
A Leicester lad
Joseph Carey Merrick was born into a poor family on Lee Street, Leicester on the 5th August 1862.
It should be noted at this point that for many decades- even when David Lynch’s film was released in 1980- Joseph was mistakingly referred to as ‘John Merrick’.
This anomaly stems from the account which Joseph’s friend and confidant, Dr. Treves (played in the film by Sir Anthony Hopkins) wrote years later in which, for reasons unknown, he insisted on using the name John.
At first Joseph was a healthy baby who displayed no signs of the mysterious disease which would come to define him.
At 21 months however swellings began to develop on his lips and, by the time he was 5, his skin had become loose and rough and a bony lump had appeared on his forehead. To add to his woes, Joseph suffered a fall at around the same age which damaged his hip permanently and left him requiring the use of a walking stick for the rest of his life.
These physical problems didn’t hold Joseph back however and he managed to complete his schooling.
Joseph adored his mother, Mary Jane Merrick, who provided him with much needed affection and stability. As a Sunday school teacher, she encouraged her son to read, leading Joseph to develop a great love of books.
As a means of explaining his deformities, Mary told young Joseph that, during her sixth month of pregnancy with him, she’d narrowly escaped being crushed by an elephant.
This story was true: it had occurred in May 1862 whilst Mary was watching Wombwell’s Menagerie pass through Leicester. During the parade, panic erupted when some of the elephants broke loose, almost trampling Mary as she stood close by.
It is not surprising Mary came out to witness the creatures- during the Victorian era, Wombwell’s Menagerie enjoyed immense fame and was well known across the land. Its founder, George Wombwell is buried in London’s Highgate Cemetery, his tomb guarded by a statue of his beloved lion, Nero.
The idea that Joseph’s deformities were caused by the stampede was based upon the theory of ‘Maternal Impression’ which suggested that severe trauma suffered during pregnancy could leave a child with a related, physical imprint.
Today of course this concept has been debunked, although it was a common belief at the time and provided the explanation to which Joseph adhered throughout his life.
Tragically, Mary died of pneumonia when Joseph was 11 years old; an event which he would later describe as “the greatest misfortune of my life.”
At the time the family were too poor to afford a headstone and Mary would not be blessed with one until 2014, over 140 years after her death.
Work & domestic strife
Following Mary’s death, Joseph’s father- also called Joseph- remarried within a year, this time to the Merrick’s landlady, a woman by the name of Emma Wood Antill.
Emma was far less sympathetic to Joseph’s plight and would frequently berate him for being a burden. In Joseph’s own words:
“I never had one moment’s comfort, she having children of her own, and I not being so handsome as they, together with my deformity she was the means of making my life a perfect misery.”
Insistent that he earn his keep, Joseph was put to work in Freeman’s cigar factory at the age of 13 where he was tasked with rolling tobacco.
Within two years however, Joseph’s right arm and hand had grown so deformed and unwieldy that his work at the cigar factory became impossible.
Unemployment wasn’t an option though. Joseph’s father ran a small haberdashery shop and he managed to obtain a hawker’s licence for his son. Joseph was now tasked therefore with selling items from the business door to door.
Due to his worsening condition however, Joseph found himself stared and taunted at as he made his rounds around the streets of Leicester. Many residents recoiled in horror upon answering his knock at the door and, whenever someone was prepared to entertain him, they found it hard to understand the young man’s sales pitch as increased growths around his mouth resulted in slurred speech.
Unsurprisingly, Joseph found it hard to make a profit. On the frequent occasions he returned home empty handed his father would subject him to a severe beating, whilst his step-mother would make a point of dishing up less food on his plate than the rest of the family.
These circumstances led Joseph to abscond from home on several occasions- an early indicator of the independent streak which he was developing- although his father managed to track him down each time.
The negative attention attracted by Joseph as he attempted selling door to door eventually led the authorities to revoke his hawker’s licence.
At around the same time he left home for good and, for a brief period, found solace in the home of a far kinder family member; his uncle Charles who was a barber by trade.
Sadly Charles had a family of his own to keep and so, unable to earn and not wishing to be a burden, Joseph had little option but to admit himself to that dreaded Victorian institution: the Workhouse.
Joseph was 17 when he entered the Leicester Union Workhouse and he would remain an inmate there for several years, his only comfort and possession being a tiny portrait of his beloved mother.
The Elephant Man finds a way out
In his early 20s, Joseph had a brainwave: it dawned upon him that it might be possible to make a living from his appearance by signing up to a ‘Freak Show.’
Spotting a newspaper advertisement asking for curiosities such as himself, he wrote to Sam Torr, a local comedian who ran Leicester’s Gladstone Music Hall.
By now, Joseph’s deformities had transformed him into the figure with which we’re now familiar: his head and face had grown huge and bumpy, his right arm was many times bigger than his left (which was strangely unaffected) unusual cauliflower-like growths covered the hanging skin on his back and his feet had swollen to a painful size. When Sam visited Joseph at the workhouse, it didn’t take him long to conclude that Joseph would be a guaranteed money maker.
A consortium of managers was arranged and Joseph was given his stage name: ‘The Elephant Man’. In August 1884 he left the workhouse for good and embarked upon a tour of playhouses across the midlands.
The Elephant Man arrives in London
After several months on the road, Sam Torr decided it would be more advantageous if Joseph were exhibited in a more permanent location; one with plenty of passing footfall. And so where better than in the midst of what was then the world’s largest metropolis?
The pair made their way to London by train in autumn 1884- with Joseph hidden beneath layers of warm clothing- and met up with the Elephant Man’s new manager: Tom Norman.
The eldest of 17 children, Tom knew how to think on his feet and was a seasoned showman, adept at turning a quick buck. In London, he ran a number of ‘Penny Gaffs’; cheap places of entertainment specifically aimed at the capital’s poorer classes.
Tom treated Joseph with respect from the very start, offering a handshake along with the words, “Well Mr Merrick, I’ll call you Joseph if I may?”
The two were similar in age; Tom 24 and Joseph 22, and the pair quickly became friends.
In the 1980 film, Joseph’s London manager is portrayed very differently to Tom Norman.
Instead of the loveable young chancer that Tom was, the audience are presented with a fictitious character; a violent, ageing alcoholic named ‘Mr Bytes’ (played by Freddie Jones).
This depiction has come in for criticism over recent years as Bytes is nothing at all like Tom.
However, I believe the fairest way to assess the Bytes character is to view him as a metaphorical embodiment of the many people who were cruel to Joseph throughout his life: his father, his step-mother, members of the public and, as we will see in part two, a later manager who committed the most heinous of acts.
The Elephant Man on Whitechapel Road
The premises in which Tom Norman established ‘The Elephant Man’ was a run-down building standing at 123 Whitechapel Road, then at the heart of one of London’s poorest districts.
The building backed onto one of London’s early underground railways (now part of the District and Hammersmith & City lines) and in those days subterranean trains were hauled by chugging steam engines which would’ve no doubt shook the building and created quite a commotion as they rumbled past.
123 Whitechapel Road still exists today- although it is now renumbered 259 and serves as a shop selling sarees and jewellery.
As well as providing exhibition space, Tom and Joseph lodged together at this address.
By this point, Joseph’s head had grown to such a size that it was impossible to sleep laying down and he was forced to doze sitting up with his knees tucked up to his chin. Upon seeing this predicament, Tom hired a carpenter in the hope that a special bed-frame could be constructed. Sadly, the design failed.
When working, Tom would stand outside on the bustling road and, above the din of people and clatter of carts and horses’ hooves, would hustle for business.
To drum up interest, he’d been provided with a large canvas banner which depicted ‘The Elephant Man’ as some sort of wild half-human, half-beast hybrid.
Being well acquainted with Joseph’s gentle persona however, Tom found this poster distasteful and therefore decided to steer his pitch away from the horror angle, calling out that the Elephant Man within was here “not to frighten you, but enlighten you.”
Once a large enough crowd had formed, Tom would take payment- the entry fee being twopence (approximately £1/$1.30 in today’s money)- and lead the group through the shop and towards the back where Joseph sat behind a curtain.
Before the grand unveiling, Tom would recite his well-rehearsed spiel:
“Ladies and gentlemen…. I would like to introduce Mr Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. Before doing so, I ask you please to prepare yourselves- brace yourselves up to witness one who is probably the most remarkable human being ever to draw the breath of life…”
The curtain would then go back and Joseph would be met with the usual gasps and stares to which he’d become accustomed- only this time he was being paid for it, with Tom splitting the profits 50/50.
Further cash was made with the sale of a souvenir pamphlet, written by Joseph as his brief autobiography, which quickly sold out.
The Royal London Hospital
Established in 1740, the Royal London Hospital stands directly opposite the premises in which The Elephant Man was on show.
At the time, one of the most renowned figures based there was Dr. Frederick Treves who, although only 31, had made a name for himself as a highly respected surgeon.
A number of staff from the Royal London had already ventured across the road to view the Elephant Man and, upon hearing their reports, Dr Treves’ curiosity was piqued. He contacted Tom Norman and arranged for a private showing one morning, the price of which was upped to one shilling.
Writing in his memoirs years later, Dr Treves recorded his blunt reaction to seeing Joseph for the first time, describing him as:
““The most disgusting specimen of humanity that I had ever seen… at no time had I met with such a degraded or perverted version of a human being as this lone figure displayed.”
Dr Treves suggested a medical examination should be conducted, to which Joseph and Tom agreed.
Although the journey to the hospital was barely a two-minute walk, Joseph had to don his specially contrived outfit which disguised him on the rare occasions he ventured outside.
This consisted of a huge, theatrical black cloak and and a custom made cap designed to hide the huge swellings around his head.
Attached to the cap was a simple mask- essentially a hessian sack- with a slit for the eyes cut out. Today, this item can be seen in the Royal London Hospital Museum.
On his swollen feet, Joseph wore a pair of carpet slippers.
When it was released in the autumn of 1980, posters advertising The Elephant Man film transformed Joseph’s distinctive outfit into a cultural icon.
Although the hospital was only across the road, Joseph used a hansom cab for the short trip. During his time in the city, he would become a regular user of London’s Hackney carriages thanks to the privacy which they afforded.
At the Royal London, Dr Treves measured and examined Joseph’s various abnormalities.
He also noted his personality, stating his visitor was “shy, confused, not a little frightened, and evidently much cowed.”
These traits, along with Joseph’s difficulty in speaking clearly, initially led Dr Treves to assume Joseph was “an imbecile”; a belief he would soon to discover to be most untrue.
To document Joseph’s case further, photographs were taken during the session.
Shortly after his examination at the Royal London and at the request of Dr Treves, Joseph agreed to be presented as a ‘living specimen’ before an audience of experts at the Pathological Society of London, then located at 53 Berners Street in the city’s fashionable west end.
The original building, long since vanished, would have stood approximately opposite the Sanderson Hotel.
Joseph’s appearance at the Society took place on the 2nd December 1884 and the event is atmospherically portrayed in David Lynch’s film.
Joseph did not take kindly to the presentation.
In the freak show he and Tom were in control- and making money- but stripped naked in the austere surroundings of the Pathological Society he felt, according to Tom, “like an animal in a cattle market.”
Although Joseph refused to participate in any further examinations, he decided to hold on to Dr Treves’ business card.
In part two, we shall see how this simple item provided Joseph with a lifeline in what would prove to be one of the most terrifying events in his life…