“I could not move about the town without having a crowd of people gather around me.”
– Joseph Cary Merrick
David Bowie, John Hurt and Bradley Cooper all have vastly different careers, but one thing in common. They have each played the role of Joseph Cary Merrick, better known as the Elephant Man.
Born in England in 1862, Merrick began developing tumors on his face before he turned two. One legend has it that he acquired his nickname because his mother suffered a fall while pregnant, when she was startled by an elephant walking down the street as part of a processional of circus animals.
“There was a terrible crush of people to see them,” Merrick wrote in a sideshow pamphlet advertising his act, “and unfortunately she was pushed under the elephant’s feet, which frightened her very much. This occurring during a time of pregnancy was the cause of my deformity.”
Experts now believe that Merrick suffered from a combination of neurofibromatosis and Proteus Syndrome, a rare condition (there are only 200 known cases worldwide) that causes tissues, nerves and bone to grow vastly more than normal, but the elephant references were glued to him for life.
Within a few years of his birth, Merrick had a large growth that left his head and face so disfigured it was difficult for him to communicate clearly. His right arm was useless, and his legs were so deformed by excessive growths that he suffered a fall that left him with a permanent limp.
While he was self-educated, Merrick had a fairly normal childhood until his mother died when he was 11. His father remarried, but his new wife was more Cinderella-style evil stepmother than mom, and Merrick was forced to sell shoe polish on the street, where he was relentlessly tormented by children. When he failed to make enough money to satisfy his stepmother, his father was given an ultimatum – either his son or his new wife – and Merrick was kicked out of the family home to fend for himself.
Although he initially landed a job in a workhouse, the labor was grueling and difficult given his handicaps, so he sought a new line of work that allowed him to become more at peace with his disfigurement.
By the time he was 22, Merrick chose his career as part of a circus sideshow, where he was displayed as “half a man, half an elephant,” and was able to earn enough money to make what was considered a good living during Victorian times.
Not only that, he felt more in control of his life, which vastly improved his outlook regarding his future.
“In fact I may say I am as comfortable now as I was uncomfortable before,” he wrote in the pamphlet.
After he found a manager, Thomas Norman, Merrick was able to save an estimated 200 British pounds (close to $320 American dollars) during the two years they toured. During that time, Norman developed a strong respect for the intelligent and kind-hearted Merrick.
He was, Norman later said in a memoir, “a man of very strong character and beliefs – anxious to earn his own living and be independent of charity.”
It was during a stint on display at a shop in London that Merrick met Dr. Frederick Treves, who worked at London Hospital, across the street from the shop.
The meeting would prove fortuitous for Merrick, who was later separated from Norman while the two were on tour and robbed of his all the money he had earned. Eventually, starving and weak, Merrick collapsed in a train station, and authorities summoned Dr. Treves, whose business card was tucked in Merrick’s pocket.
Treves immediately came to rescue Merrick, and admitted him to London Hospital, where he would live out the rest of his days in basement rooms that were renovated to better accommodate him.
Although he was never able to escape scrutiny – at the hospital, doctors from around the world came to see his extraordinary deformities – he did develop some deep friendships, not only with Dr. Treves, but also with visitors ranging from Princess Alexandria of Wales to members of Britain’s upper class, who found it de rigueur to visit the famous young Englishman and shower him with gifts, including shaving kits he couldn’t use.
Because of his condition, Merrick was forced to sleep upright, his head supported by his knees, and he had been warned that if he attempted to sleep lying down, he risked fatally breaking his neck.
It is believed that when he died, on the afternoon of April 11, 1890, he was exhausted from emotional and physical pain as well as his continued inability to communicate clearly, so he deliberately laid down to rest, breaking his neck and dying instantly.
After Merrick’s death, plaster casts were taken of his body for scientific study, but they were destroyed during World War II. His skeleton remains encased in glass at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel where he lived out the last of his 28 years.
While his story was made famous by the 1980 David Lynch movie “The Elephant Man,” audiences continue to learn about the internal beauty of Joseph Merrick through the Broadway production of the same name.
Bradley Cooper, who said the Lynch movie led him to a career in acting, is currently playing the coveted role.
The show runs through Feb. 15 at the Booth Theatre.
Author: Brenda Neugent
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons