Joseph Carey Merrick (1862 - 1890)
"Peace to her, she was a good mother to me."
The Autobiography of Joseph Carey Merrick
The tragic story of Leicester-born Joseph Merrick has been the subject of many books and also a film, starring John Hurt, and there has been much speculation as to the cause of his severe deformity. He was born on 5th August 1862 in Lee Street near Wharf Street, and appeared seemingly healthy, surviving rampant diseases and the yearly flooding of the River Soar. Before he turned two, however, a tumor began to grow in his mouth. His mother believed it resembled an elephant's trunk, and told Joseph it was caused by her being frightened by a circus elephant before he was born. All his life, Joseph believed that this explained his strange condition, which grew worse with age.
Mary Jane Merrick was a devout Baptist Sunday School teacher at Archdeacon Lane Baptist Chapel. She had given Joseph the middle name "Carey" in honor of William Carey, the missionary who had served Leicester one hundred years earlier. She sent Joseph to school every day, believing he should get an education. In 1873, shortly before he turned eleven, his mother died of bronchopneumonia, exhausted by raising a family and running her husband's haberdashery shop. Her death was the greatest sorrow of Joseph's childhood.
Joseph’s widowed father moved the family into a rooming house in Wanlip Street. He soon married the landlady, Emma Wood-Antill, who had two daughters of her own. She was cruel to Joseph, harassing him about finding a job, and serving him smaller portions of food than the rest. The family moved to 37 Russell Square, and Joseph attempted to find a job. He worked at Freeman's Cigar Factory for two years, until his right hand could no longer handle the delicate job of rolling the cigars. Unable to find another job, Joseph was sent out to hawk goods from his father's haberdashery. As he went door-to-door and stood at the Clock Tower with his wares, passers-by avoided him. Children tormented him and threw stones. Soon he could no longer meet the daily sales quota his father had callously set for him. He was beaten as punishment and deprived of his supper. After one final thrashing, Joseph left home for good and was sheltered by his Uncle Charles, a barber in Churchgate, for the next two years. He was treated kindly by his uncle and aunt, and not expected to meet a set quota of sales.
Due to Charles's growing family, Joseph began to feel he was a burden. He signed himself into the Leicester Union Workhouse in 1879. He left after three months, but still could not find a job, and was forced to return to the workhouse. By 1882, the tumor in his mouth had grown so large he could barely eat or speak. Doctors removed the growth to give him relief.
After four years in the workhouse, Joseph heard of a new music hall, the Gaiety Palace in Wharf Street, owned by Sam Torr, a popular performer and entrepreneur. Joseph wrote to Torr asking if he might sign on as a human novelty. Torr agreed, along with a consortium of other showmen. They billed Joseph as "The Elephant Man, half-a-man, half-an-elephant." Joseph flourished under their generous management, and managed to earn fifty pounds, pleased to be earning his own living instead of receiving charity. In Whitechapel, London, whilst working with his showman and friend, Tom Norman, Joseph was spotted by doctors from the London Hospital across the road. Frederick Treves, an eminent surgeon, asked if he might present Joseph to the Pathological Society. Joseph agreed, perhaps hoping for a cure, but after several visits, refused to go, stating he disliked being stripped naked for the presentations, like "cattle in a market."
Tom Norman's show was shut down on grounds of public indecency. He reluctantly sent Joseph back to Leicester. Joseph worked with several showmen until he was taken to the Continent and abandoned in Belgium. Destitute and starving he returned to London, where Frederick Treves and the hospital committee provided him a permant home. Visited by high society and even royalty, Joseph remained there until his death in April, 1890. The cause of death was given as asphyxia but in 2011, determined to be an accidental fracture of the neck, not deliberate, as Treves implied in his memoirs years later.
Many people have come to admire Joseph Merrick for his gentleness and never-ending quest for human dignity. In 2004, the Friends of Joseph Carey Merrick succesfully campaigned to have a commemorative plaque displayed at Wharf Street and Gladstone Street, where he is believed to have performed. The plaque is now at Moat Community College, the site of the former Leicester Union Workhouse. Visitors are not able to view the plaque during school hours, however.
In 2012, the Friends of Joseph Carey Merrick located the grave of Mary Jane Merrick in Welford Road Cemetery. Leicester stonemason Glenn Andrews, who had made the plaque, made a special stone gratis in honor of Mary Jane and her four children. The stone can now be viewed at the cemetery and flowers can be brought. It is the closest place that one can honor Joseph Carey Merrick's life and legacy.
Mae Siu Wai Stroshane
Friends of Joseph Carey Merrick
Below is Joseph's famous poem which he often used to sign letters. It is "False Greatness," by Isaac Watts, and Joseph adapted this poem as his personal creed.
'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.
Sitton & Stroshane, 2012 "Measured by the Soul: The Life of Joseph Carey Merrick"
Howell M. & Ford P. 1980 The True History of the Elephant Man London, Penguin Books
Norman, Tom, "The Penny Showman," private memoirs
Merrick, Joseph "The Autobiography of Joseph Carey Merrick"
Treves, Frederick 1923, "The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences"