• Weird History

Heartbreaking Facts About Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man

Joseph Merrick was born on August 5, 1862 in Leicester, England. When he was about five years old, he began developing signs of an abnormal disorder where large growths appeared on his bones and skin. By the time he reached adulthood, the circumference of Merrick's head was roughly 3 feet, with growths disfiguring his face and jaw, rendering him nearly unable to communicate. 

At the age of 21, Merrick fled the workhouse he had been forced to live in due to his disability, and he took up with a traveling human oddity exhibit, joining the ranks of other famous "freakshow" performers and becoming known as "The Elephant Man." When the public interest in freak shows waned in England, he was forced to spend the remainder of his days living in a London hospital. Merrick died in April of 1890 due to complications from his condition. He was just 27 years old.

Thought to have suffered from an extremely rare congenital disorder called Proteus syndrome (also known as Wiedemann syndrome), Merrick is one of the most famous medical oddities in recent history. Though he lived much of his short life on display like a soulless object, Merrick was very human, and outside of his disfigurement, his life was also filled with tragedy. This list explores the most heartbreaking facts about Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man.

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  • He Was Forced To Live In A Workhouse At 17

    17 years old and homeless with a rare medical condition, Joseph Merrick had no choice but to seek refuge at the Leicester Union Workhouse. Workhouses at that time were prison-like environments where those considered unemployable performed grueling labor. Merrick was miserable in the Union Workhouse, and he despised his time there. After a few years, his condition worsened and left him unable to perform the tasks given to him, so he left in 1884 to strike out on his own.

  • Even Doctors Looked At Him Like A Human Oddity

    After leaving the Leicester Union Workhouse in 1884, Merrick decided to capitalize on his disfigurement by joining a human oddities show. As a part of the Gaiety Palace of Varieties, he became known as “The Elephant Man, Half-Man, Half-Elephant," and he was exhibited in Leicester, Nottingham, and London to much fanfare.

    It was during his time in the capital city that he was displayed across the street from the London hospital, where doctors and surgeons would come marvel at his condition - even to trained professionals, he was a mere spectacle.  

  • He Was Robbed Of His Life Savings

    Though he was paid and treated relatively well in the freak show circuit, Joseph Merrick's professional life would prove short-lived. By the mid-1880s, human oddity exhibits had fallen out of favor with the English public, so Merrick's manager brought him to Belgium in hopes of attracting a larger audience. But Merrick's manager turned on him shortly into the tour, severely beating him and stealing his life savings, before abandoning him in a foreign land. Penniless and destitute, Merrick had to return to England on his own. 

  • He Spent His Final Years In The Hospital

    When Merrick returned to England, he was mobbed by awed spectators upon arrival. Dispersing the gawking crowds, police came to his aide but found him to be panicked and unintelligible, his condition making it nearly impossible for him to speak at this point. 

    There was a card in Merrick's coat belonging to a Frederick Treves - a surgeon who had met Merrick during his previous time in London - so police, unsure what else to do, contacted the man. Treves took Merrick into his hospital in the Whitechapel area of London, cordoning off several rooms for him to live in. Merrick lived the rest of his days there, forging a strong friendship with Treves in the process.