Joseph Merrick’s Short and Tragic Life

Joseph MerrickOn this day in 1862, Joseph Merrick was born. He is better know as The Elephant Man, an English “human curiosity” and celebrity. The story of his life is quite interesting, although incredibly sad. He was born seemingly normal, only showing initial signs of deformity at the age of two, which became distinct by the age of five. He was raised and educated as one would expect for a middle class child of that time. But things took a turn for the worse when his mother died when he was ten. His father remarried, and Merrick’s stepmother did not like him. In addition, his father beat him.

At the end of 13, he started working in a cigar factory. But soon his deformities had become so bad that he couldn’t do the work. After the factory job, his father got him a license that allowed him to be a door-to-door peddler. This sounds laughable, and was as successful as you might think. Of his home life at that time, Merrick wrote, “I was taunted and sneered at so that I would not go home to my meals, and used to stay in the streets with a hungry belly rather than return for anything to eat, what few half-meals I did have, I was taunted with the remark—’That’s more than you have earned.'” So at the age of 15, he left home for good.

By 17, he checked himself into a workhouse where he stayed for four years, even though conditions were horrible. He contacted a music hall owner and proposed they turn him into a human curiosity. This actually worked out rather well for a couple of years. But the government was trying to shut down such “freak shows.” It is interesting that there were concerns about “human decency,” but not really that Merrick had no other way of making a living. This is a broader problem we have today. I’ve never quite understood why the government has been willing in the past to pay farmers to not farm, but the same is not done for workers in industries like coal. (Well, we know why, don’t we: coal workers have no political power the way farmers in the past did.)

So after two years, during which Merrick was able to save the equivalent of about $10,000 in today’s money, he went on tour in Europe. But there, away from his normal management team, he was robbed of his savings and abandoned by his road manager. Merrick managed to make his way back to London where a doctor who had examined him a number of times in the previous years, Frederick Treves, admitted him for his bronchitis to London Hospital. By this point, at the age of 23, Merrick’s condition was much worse. And in addition to everything else, Treves found that the young man had a heart condition that would eventually kill him. (He died before it did, however.)

His case became publicized and with donations from the public, Merrick was set up in two rooms in the basement of the hospital where he was allowed to live out the rest of his life with a modicum of dignity denied him for most his life up until then. He died shortly after his 27th birthday. At this point, no one really knows just what Merrick suffered from. It would seem that it was a combination of things. Maffucci syndrome? Polyostotic fibrous dysplasia? Proteus syndrome? I don’t suppose it much matters.

Happy birthday Joseph Merrick!

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