Joseph Merrick  

From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia

(Redirected from Joseph Carey Merrick)
Jump to: navigation, search

Related e



Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Joseph Carey Merrick (5 August 1862 – 11 April 1890), sometimes incorrectly referred to as John Merrick, was an English man with severe deformities who was exhibited as a human curiosity named the Elephant Man. In 1979, Bernard Pomerance's play about Merrick called The Elephant Man débuted, and David Lynch's film, also called The Elephant Man, was released the following year.


Joseph Merrick became well known in London society after he went to live at the London Hospital. Merrick was born in Leicester, Leicestershire and began to develop abnormally during the first few years of his life. His skin appeared thick and lumpy, he developed an enlargement of his lips, and a bony lump grew on his forehead. One of his arms and both feet became enlarged and at some point during his childhood he fell and damaged his hip, resulting in permanent lameness. When he was 11, his mother died and his father soon remarried. Merrick left school at 13, and had difficulty finding employment. Rejected by his father and stepmother, he left home. In late 1879, aged 17, Merrick entered the Leicester Union Workhouse.

In 1884, after four years in the workhouse, Merrick contacted a showman named Sam Torr and proposed that Torr should exhibit him. Torr agreed, and arranged for a group of men to manage Merrick, whom they named the Elephant Man. After touring the East Midlands, Merrick travelled to London to be exhibited in a penny gaff shop on Whitechapel Road which was rented by showman Tom Norman. Norman's shop, directly across the street from the London Hospital, was visited by a surgeon named Frederick Treves, who invited Merrick to be examined and photographed. Soon after Merrick's visits to the hospital, Tom Norman's shop was closed by the police and Merrick's managers sent him to tour in Europe.

In Belgium, Merrick was robbed by his road manager and abandoned in Brussels. He eventually made his way back to London; unable to communicate, he was found by the police to have Frederick Treves' card on him. Treves came and took Merrick back to the London Hospital. Although his condition was incurable, Merrick was allowed to stay at the hospital for the remainder of his life. Treves visited him daily and the pair developed quite a close friendship. Merrick also received visits from the wealthy ladies and gentlemen of London society, including Alexandra, Princess of Wales.

Merrick died on 11 April 1890, aged 27. The official cause of death was asphyxia, although Treves, who dissected the body, said that Merrick had died of a dislocated neck. He believed that Merrick—who had to sleep sitting up because of the weight of his head—had been attempting to sleep lying down, to "be like other people". The exact cause of Merrick's deformities is unclear. The dominant theory throughout much of the 20th century was that Merrick suffered from neurofibromatosis type I. In 1986, a new theory emerged that he had Proteus syndrome. In 2001 it was proposed that Merrick had suffered from a combination of neurofibromatosis type I and Proteus syndrome. DNA tests conducted on his hair and bones have proven inconclusive.

In popular culture

Following the publication of Montagu's book, Merrick returned to popular attention around 1980 when two high-profile productions made him their subject. His life story became the basis of the 1979 Tony Award-winning play The Elephant Man, in which he is initially played by Philip Anglim, followed by David Bowie). In the following year, the David Lynch-directed film The Elephant Man was released, in which he was played by John Hurt. Each production took a different approach to the story. In 1982, the play was broadcast as a television movie.

In the mid-1980s, it was widely reported that singer Michael Jackson wanted to purchase the Elephant Man's bones. Jackson denied this. In 1993, during an interview at his Neverland Ranch, Michael Jackson told Oprah Winfrey that it was, "another stupid story. I love the story of the Elephant Man, he reminds me of me a lot, and I could relate to it, it made me cry because I saw myself in the story, but no I never asked for the... where am I going to put some bones? And why would I want some bones?" In a 1989 music video for the song "Leave Me Alone" (from Moonwalker), Jackson could be seen dancing alongside a claymation version of Merrick's bones. This was a piece of sarcastic humor, as other parts of the video dealt with how Jackson was unfairly portrayed by the media.

Merrick has been mentioned many times by Karl Pilkington in the Ricky Gervais show podcasts and the XFM shows. Pilkington talks about his fascination with Merrick and how the film is his favorite of all time. Pilkington wonders why Merrick does not appear in the book Top 50 Freaks of All Time, which he carries around with him wherever he goes.

Merrick has been mentioned in song by a number of artists, including Barenaked Ladies (in the song "If I Had $1000000"), Suede (in the song "Elephant Man"), Mastodon (in the songs "Elephant Man", "Joseph Merrick" and "Pendulous Skin"), The Dandys (in the B-side "Elephant Man"), Bigbang (in the song "The Elephant Man"), Fall of Troy (in the song "Wacko Jacko Steals the Elephant Man's Bones"), The Bloodhound Gang (in the song "Why's Everbody Always Pickin' on Me?"), Buckethead (in "The John Merrick Elephant Man Bones Explosion", The Murder City Devils,"Bride of the Elephant Man", and "The Elephant Man's Alarm Clock"), Immortal Technique (In the song Freedom of Speech) and Webb Wilder (in "The Olde Elephant Man").

The Elephant Man is a supporting character in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's graphic novel From Hell, and also appears very briefly in the film based on the book, albeit in an entirely different context.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Joseph Merrick" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

Personal tools