The Elephant Man by Jef Page


Reviewed by Ed Stow


The December meeting of the Whitechapel Society, held in the now familiar surroundings of the dive bar at Dirty Dicks on Bishopsgate, played host to Jeff Page who came along to talk about Joseph Merrick, otherwise known as the Elephant Man.

Jeff, of the Ilford Historical Society, speaks on numerous topics, and was formerly employed at the National Gallery.

Jef’s account, profusely illustrated via power point, was largely based on two sources. Firstly, the iconic 1979 David Lynch film ‘The Elephant Man’, shot in black and white for dramatic effect and staring Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt (who had to endure 7 hours in makeup for his appearances). This other main source was the seminal 1980 book by Michael Howell and Peter Ford: ‘The True History of the Elephant Man’, which has become the standard work on Merrick’s sad and brief life.

Jef sketched out Joseph Merrick’s life from his birth in Leicester in 1862. All of his brothers and sisters also died young and his mother seems to probably have been physically disabled. Joseph’s disabilities seemed to have started to become apparent by the time he was five at least.

However Joseph believed that his affliction were caused by his mother being knocked over by a fairground elephant while she was pregnant with him.

Joseph’s life took its downward turn when his mother died in 1873 and a year later his father remarried. His relationship with his step mother was strained and he unsuccessfully tried to earn money as a hawker. Eventually he ended up going into a Leicester Union Work House in 1879 at the age of 17. He was to stay on workhouses off and on until 1884.

Joseph Merrick’s deformities became more pronounced as he got older – partially the result of failed medical procedures that were intended to be corrective. He had two operations – one on leg (maybe) one on mouth – possibly without anaesthetic. These made his physical situation worse.

Eventually, to escape the workhouse Joseph put himself forward to travelling showmen and fair owners as a human curiosity. He joined the Gaiety Palace of Varieties in Leicester to earn regular money and under Leicestershire entrepreneur Samuel Roper travelled the East Midlands. He was sold to the public as being “Half-a-Man and Half-an-Elephant”, and gained the new name ‘The Elephant Man’.

Jef emphasised that while he was exhibited in a freak show Joseph was not treated badly as he was an important and valuable asset. This was one aspect of the film that he felt misrepresented reality.

While touring ‘The Elephant Man’ was brought to London and was ‘traded’ to Tom Norman who set up freak show in a shop on Whitechapel Road (the building still exists and was at one time a sari centre).

Dr Reginald Tuckett of London Hospital (which was directly opposite the shop) discovered Joseph. In the days before the National Health Service the London Hospital was the largest voluntary hospital in London (i.e it was supported by the voluntary contributions of the public).

Tuckett told his superior, Sir Frederick Treves (who performed first successful appendectomy in 1888) about Joseph. Treves came to have a look and invited Joseph over to the hospital for a proper examination. Photographs taken of him and Joseph was presented naked at a meeting of the Pathological Society.

However soon afterwards the Whitechapel freak show shop was closed by the authorities and Joseph resumed his tours, eventually ending up in Belgium, where he seems to have been robbed and abandoned. Showing a surprising degree of initiative and individual resilience, Joseph managed to get back to London. However, while at Liverpool Street Station he had to be rescued by a policeman from a crowd f over enthusiastic onlookers. Joseph still had Treves introduction card and through this he was brought back to the London Hospital.

Although the London Hospital was not equipped or designed for the long term care of incurable patients, an exception was made for Joseph Merrick. Treves persuaded Francis Carr Gomm, the chairman of the hospital committee, to admit Merrick who moved into a special room known as the Elephant House. He could not lie down – as the weight of his head would result in his neck breaking, so a special chair (which still exists) was made for him to sleep in.

In return for having secure lodgings for life, Treves used Joseph Merrick’s presence in the hospital to run publicity campaigns to raise funds.

Joseph amused himself making models (one of which – Mainz Cathedral – still exists) and entered into correspondence with various people (although only one of his letters survives). He even went to see a pantomime at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane thanks to the acclaimed actress Madge Kendall – one of his celebrity patrons. Alexandra, the Princess of Wales was another visitor.

But Joseph’s condition continued to deteriorate and in 1890 at the age of just 27 Joseph died at the London Hospital. Treves performed the autopsy and found that Joseph had died of a dislocated neck, caused by his lying down. Whether this was effectively suicide is not known.

After death, Joseph’s skeleton was used as an exhibit and is still part of the private collection held by the Royal London Hospital for medical students to study. Plaster casts of parts of Joseph’s body are also kept there. Famously 1987 Michael Jackson tried to buy skeleton but this offer was rejected.

It was thought that Joseph suffered from neurofibromatosis type 1. But subsequent theories have centred around this being combined with Proteus syndrome with complications. Despite the overt excuse for Joseph Merrick’s study as being for medical reasons, the true nature of his very rare condition remains a mystery.

The question time was ably conducted by Phil Hutchinson who is himself very knowledgeable about Joseph Merrick and ended up answering many questions himself. The main topic of interest seemed to be whether or not Joseph Merrick would be able to perform – sexually. The audience included several other authorities on Merrick’s life, including Lindsay Siviter who brought along her album of pictures taken within the Royal London Hospital.

The Royal London Hospital Museum has many exhibits relating to Joseph Merrick and is well worth a visit. It is free and can be found at St. Philip’s Church, Newark Street, London E1 2AA and is open Tuesday to Friday from 10 am to 4:30 pm.

The last word should go to Joseph Merrick, with these lines of verse that he is known to have used:

‘Tis true my form is something odd,

But blaming me is blaming God;

Could I create myself anew

I would not fail in pleasing you.

If I could reach from pole to pole

Or grasp the ocean with a span,

I would be measured by the soul;

The mind’s the standard of the man.


Jef Page (pictured)