Joseph Merrick

Joseph Carey Merrick (5 August 1862 – 11 April 1890), often erroneously called John Merrick, was an English man known for having severe deformities. He was first exhibited at a freak show as the "Elephant Man", and then went to live at the London Hospital after he met Frederick Treves, subsequently becoming well known in London society.

Joseph Merrick
Merrick, c.1889
Joseph Carey Merrick

(1862-08-05)5 August 1862
Died(1890-04-11)11 April 1890 (aged 27)
Cause of deathAsphyxia
Resting placeSkeleton on display in Royal London Hospital
Other namesThe Elephant Man
John Merrick
Years active1884-1885
Known forPhysical deformities due to suspected Proteus syndrome
Height5 ft 2 in (157 cm)
  • Joseph Rockley Merrick (father)
  • Mary Jane Merrick (née Potterton) (mother)
FamilyWilliam Arthur (brother)
Marion Eliza (Sister)
Charles Merrick (uncle)
Barnabas Merrick (Grandfather)
Sarah Rockley (Grandmother)

Merrick was born in Leicester and began to develop abnormally before the age of five. His mother died when he was eleven[1] and his father soon remarried. Rejected by his father and stepmother, he left home and went to live with his uncle Charles Merrick.[2] In 1879, 17-year-old Merrick entered the Leicester Union Workhouse.[3] In 1884, he contacted a showman named Sam Torr and proposed that Torr should exhibit him. Torr arranged for a group of men to manage Merrick, whom they named 'the Elephant Man'. After touring the East Midlands, Merrick travelled to London to be exhibited in a penny gaff shop rented by showman Tom Norman. Norman's shop was visited by surgeon Frederick Treves who invited Merrick to be examined. After Merrick was displayed by Treves at a meeting of the Pathological Society of London in 1883, Norman's shop was closed by the police[4] and Merrick joined Sam Roper's circus and was toured in Europe.[5]

In Belgium, Merrick was robbed by his road manager and abandoned in Brussels. He eventually made his way back to the London Hospital[6] where he was allowed to stay for the rest of his life. Treves visited him daily, and the pair developed a close friendship. Merrick also received visits from the wealthy ladies and gentlemen of London society, including Alexandra, Princess of Wales. Although the official cause of his death was asphyxia, Treves, who performed the postmortem, said Merrick had died of a dislocated neck.

The exact cause of Merrick's deformities is unclear. In 1986 it was conjectured that he had Proteus syndrome. DNA tests on his hair and bones in a 2003 study were inconclusive. The leading cause of this is because his skeleton was bleached multiple times before being displayed at the Royal London Hospital. Merrick's life was depicted in a 1979 play by Bernard Pomerance, and a 1980 film by David Lynch, both titled The Elephant Man.