Although not born in the East End, Joseph Merrick spent much of his life in the area and died in the Royal London Hospital on Whitechapel Road. Known for much of his life, and in popular culture ever since, as the “Elephant Man”, Merrick suffered from an unknown condition that left him severely deformed.
Famous East End Characters the “Elephant Man”
Exhibited as a freak for much of his adult life, his time in the East End may well have been the happiest and safest of his adult life.
Joseph Merrick’s early life
Merrick was born in Leicester in 1862. It is not conclusively known when the physical signs of his condition actually started to develop. Some reports state that this happened when he was aged around two; others that he was fine until he was around five. At some point in his childhood, however, his skin became thick, rough and bumpy, described as being like “that of an elephant, and almost the same colour”, and he started to develop lumps and bony growths all over his body.
Physical disabilities were not accepted during this period in time and were not understood. It is said that Merrick’s family thought that his condition was caused by his mother being struck by an elephant during a visit to the fair while she was pregnant with Merrick. At this time, it was believed that mothers could influence the development of their children if they became emotionally disturbed during pregnancy.
Merrick had a relatively happy life until the death of his mother in 1873. Things were not so happy after his father’s remarriage the following year, and Merrick left home at the age of 13. Although he initially found work, his deformities were increasing, and he could not manage to hold down his job, or to find alternative employment. At this stage, people were horrified by the way he looked and his speech was becoming severely affected. By the time he was 17, Merrick entered the local workhouse.
Merrick joins the freak show circuit
The only way out of the workhouse was to find a job, and Merrick’s deformities left him only one option. In 1884, he arranged to be shown as a novelty exhibit in a travelling freak show. At the time, these shows were very popular — people would pay to see people with strange appearances or deformities. Merrick toured around the country, billed as the “Elephant Man”, who was half man, half elephant.
Merrick moves to Whitechapel
By the end of the year, Merrick was given to a showman who ran a novelty shop on Whitechapel Road. He agreed to exhibit him there. You can understand how bad his deformities were, as the showman who took him over almost didn’t employ him. He was worried that people would be too horrified. Merrick was displayed in a back room in the shop. Although his life may seem bad to us, he was able to save a fair amount of money, as he was paid a share of profits.
Frederick Treves and the London Hospital
The shop in which Merrick worked was directly over the road from the Royal London Hospital, then known as the London Hospital. Its medical staff made regular visits to see Merrick for themselves; one recommended that a senior surgeon, Frederick Treves, should take a look with a view to making a medical examination of his condition.
Treves arranged a private viewing and seems to have been fairly horrified at what he saw, describing Merrick’s appearance as “disgusting”, “degraded” and “perverted”. He assumed, based on his appearance, that he must be an imbecile. Nonetheless he later asked to examine Merrick at the hospital a few times until Merrick decided that he didn’t want to be examined any longer.
At this point, the freak show shop was closed down by police and Merrick went on the road again. The authorities were clamping down on these kinds of shows, and were particularly negative about Merrick, so he set off on a European tour. Things were no better over there, and his new manager stole his savings and abandoned him. Merrick managed to make his way back to England, but his speech was so unintelligible that he was unable to ask for help. A policeman found a calling card that Treves had left with Merrick and he had him admitted to his hospital.
Merrick’s later life in the London Hospital
Treves found that Merrick’s condition had deteriorated since they had last met and he needed long-term care. However, the hospital could not find anywhere willing to take him. It asked readers of the Times newspaper for advice and, in turn, received so many donations that the hospital was able to give Merrick a home. It set him up in two rooms in the basement and committed to caring for him for the rest of his life.
During this period, Treves visited Merrick every day and spent time with him at weekends. He discovered that Merrick was actually an intelligent man, once he started to understand his speech. Treves made attempts to make life less lonely for him, arranging short holidays in the country, theatre visits and bringing in new people to meet him. Merrick’s days were spent building models out of card, reading, and entertaining guests. In 1887, he even met Princess Alexandra, who came to the hospital to open its new building.
Merrick lived in the hospital in Whitechapel for four years, dying in 1890. If you’re interested in learning more about his life, you can see displays at the Royal London Hospital’s museum.