One-hundred and forty-one years ago, a baby boy named Joseph Carey Merrick was born. As with any other healthy birth, Joseph was a beautiful little human with proud parents. As time went on, he grew to be a happy toddler. Until he began to develop strange lumps on his face. By the time he was five, the right side of Josephs face was covered with tumors. From then on, his body would develop into the most tragic case of deformity the field of medicine has ever seen. His life was one of suffering and darkness, and this is his story.
Joseph Carey Merrick was born on August 5th, 1862 to Mary Jane Poppleton and Joseph Merrick, Sr. Soon after, his brother William and sister Eliza Marion were born into the family as well. However, the happiness that befell the family with the birth of the three children was short-lived when William fell ill and died of scarlet fever on Christmas. It wasnt long before Joseph began to show signs of a serious medical disorder. The small lumps on the side of his face were ignored until he was five years old, when they began to cover the rest of his body. Then, when Joseph was eleven years old, his mother died of bronchial-pneumonia on May 19th 1873. Joseph was devastated.
He would later write in his journal that the death of his mother really was a tragedy. He ended the entry with peace to her, she was a good mother to me (Discovery Health). One year after his mothers death, Josephs father married the landlady, Emma Wood Antill. This marks the beginning of Josephs true torture. His deformity had gotten so bad that he was unable to attend school or even walk out of his front door without being ridiculed. His head had grown to an enormous size, measuring 36 inches in circumference. Enlargement of his skull, right arm and feet had become steadily worse as he grew older.
Josephs skin grew loose and rough in texture and acquired a grayish color that resembled elephant skin. His arm and feet grew more horribly twisted and hiss peech was effected by a bony mass that grew and protruded from his upper lip, making it hard to speak and almost impossible to smile. His nose was merely a lump of flesh, only recognizable as a nose from its position on his face. His right arm, which eventually became unusable, was 12 inches around the wrist and five inches around one of the fingers. Joseph was also covered with a very sickening stench which was hard to tolerate.
Josephs step-mother forced Joseph to work for food by selling items door to door. But with his gruesome appearance, he was unable to make enough money to satisfy her. In his late teens, Joseph was inevitably kicked out of his home and onto the streets to fend for himself. Joseph approached near starvation before his uncle found him and took him into his home. Joseph later wrote that his uncle was the best friend [he] had in those days (Trull, 1). But, as did every other possibility for salvation in Josephs life, his stay with his uncle became short lived due to lack of money and Josephs inability to work.
As a last desperate resort, Joseph took a job with Tom Norman, the owner of a successful carnival attraction. Joseph became one of the most popular sideshow freaks of his time and because of his grotesquely protruding upper lip, he was tagged as The Elephant Man. Even though he was being displayed to hundreds as a human oddity, Joseph claimed to have been treated well. At this point in time, once a freak gained a certain amount of respect as a successful attraction, he was treated as any other talented entertainer.
Tom Norman decided to rent a small shop in London primarily for the display of The Elephant Man. The shop was located directly across from the London Hospital and the audience at its grand opening consisted of nurses and doctors as well as the usual spectators. Word of Joseph Merrick traveled back to a surgeon at the hospital named Sir Fredrick Treves, who decided to see this curiosity for himself. He made arrangements with Norman to have a private showing of The Elephant Man. Later that night, Treves was taken to a small, damp room behind the shop where Merrick was chained and beaten by his boss.
In his journals, Treves described Merrick as the most disgusting specimen of humanity that [he] ha[d] ever seen (Sitton, 1). He claimed he was a degraded and perverted version of a human being. He was baffled as to the cause of this abnormal deformation, so he invited Joseph to the hospital for a thorough examination. Joseph stood naked in front of hundreds of medical doctors, surgeons, and scientists while Treves pointed and described each and every deformation. However, few of the observers could even give a diagnosis, let alone a cure. Still baffled, Treves gave Joseph his business card and sent him back to the midway.
Two days after Josephs visit to the London Hospital, the local police decided to close down his attraction, forcing Tom Norman to look for another venue. The two of them traveled to Leicester but Norman eventually decided that Joseph was more trouble than he was worth. Joseph was robbed by Norman then left without food, money, or a place to go on the damp streets of Belgium. He attempted to beg on the streets for food but after many days without nourishment and having rocks thrown at him by angry mobs, Joseph somehow boarded a ship traveling back to London.
Once he returned, he was nearly killed by a mob of people claiming he was the carrier of the plague. The police found him, close to death, sick with a terrible cough, and desperate for any kind of salvation. His only possession was the business card that Fredrick Treves had given him. Treves was called by officials at the police station who were unsure of what to do with this monster theyd found. Treves came to Josephs rescue and wrote of this second encounter in his journal, describing Joseph as a mere heap huddled up and helpless-looking nearly done (Gates, 1).
In July of 1886, Treves admitted Merrick into the London Hospital for exhaustion, malnutrition, and bronchitis. Plans were eventually made to secure a final home and resting place for Joseph. The administration of the hospital was unsure of they wanted to take on full responsibility for this seemingly helpless case. Carr Gromm, the chairman of the hospital, wrote a letter to the newspaper describing Josephs sad condition and asking for the publics aid. Not long after, the Princess of Wales herself visited the London Hospital to ensure the safety and salvation of this man.
In December of 1886, Joseph was moved to his own home on the Hospital grounds. For the first time in his life, Joseph had been shown compassion. He had finally found acceptance in the hospital staff and a savior in Fredrick Treves. In his new home, Joseph acquired a child-like interest and passion for reading. He also loved to build beautiful detailed models of buildings but, due to his unusable right arm, he made them with only his left. It is unclear where he acquired this remarkable skill and only one model remains today of St. Phillips Church. Four years after Joseph was moved into his final home, he was found dead in his room at 1:30 p. on April 11, 1899.
He had seemingly died in his sleep after his head had fallen backwards and dislocated his neck due to the weight of the massive skull, A memorial service was held in the hospital chapel. Treves preserved Josephs form by making casts of his face and limbs for future study. The doctors of the London hospital and surrounding medical professionals were never able to give Joseph a diagnosis. Josephs condition has remained a medical curiosity for years. At first, Josephs deformity was believed to have been caused by a heard of panicked elephants that trampled his mother during pregnancy, an event which left her crippled.
Another early belief was that Joseph suffered from elephantitis, which causes part of the body to grow and swell to abnormal sizes. Later, it was theorized that he had an extremely severe case of neurofibromatosis. However, no known case of this disorder has ever been as profound as Merricks. Finally, in 1979, doctors believed they had found the true cause of Josephs deformity. A much more rare disease was identified as causing over-growth of bone and other tissue. This disorder, named Proteus Syndrome, had been recorded in fewer than 100 cases ever. According to the U.
S. National Instituted of Health Panel, Proteus Syndrome was the likely cause of Josephs plight. Still, many medical and scientific professionals were not convinced that Proteus Syndrome was the cause of Josephs particular case. Just recently, scientists decided to turn to DNA to uncover the truth behind the mystery. The plaster cast made of Josephs body soon after his death contained tiny hairs embedded in the material. Also, doctors speculated that the abnormal lumps of bone on Josephs skull might possibly have allowed DNA to survive inside for over 100 years.
DNA was miraculously extracted from both the hair and the lumps on the skull. Scientists found that Proteus Syndrome was probably not the cause. Therefore, the true cause still remains a mystery. The story of Joseph Merricks life is a sad one. It is also a mystery. What caused his deformities? Why has there not been more than one case? Maybe as the field of medicine develops and increases in knowledge and resources, we may one day find the true cause of Josephs suffering. Until then, he will remain one of the most tragic and compelling figures in the history of mankind.