Joseph Merrick, the Elephant man

John Merrick aka the ‘Elephant Man‘ is one of the most famous ‘freaks’ that ever lived, due probably, to the fact that behind a body monstrously deformed remained a man, conscious and intelligent enough to understand his misery.

"One thing that always struck me as sad about Merrick was the fact that he could not smile. Whatever his delight may be his face remained expressionless. He could weep, but he could not smile" – Frederick Treves

Merrick, who was born in Leicester in 1862, showed signs of deformity from the age of five. By the time he was a teenager, he was completely deformed and had been rejected by his community and his own parents.

He was a member of a travelling circus and became widely known for his role as a fairground freak. In his mid-20s, he met a surgeon who arranged for him to be admitted to the Royal London Hospital. Merrick died there in his sleep as his head fell back under the weight, dislocating his neck. He was 27.

The cause of his severe deformities has baffled doctors for more than a century. A team of international scientists sought to resolve the problem by carrying out DNA tests on his remains. They obtained samples of his hair and bone. Tests suggested he may have suffered from NF1 or Proteus syndrome, or maybe even both. However, the tests were not conclusive.

NF1 is a rare genetic disorder. It can cause tumours to grow in several parts of the body and can cause enlarged deformations of bones.

Proteus syndrome is present at birth and can cause overgrowth in different parts of the head, including the head and limbs.


Beyond the also famous film from David Lynch, we invite the reader to read Joseph’s autobiography.

“I first saw the light on the 5th of August, 1860, I was born in Lee Street, Wharf Street, Leicester. The deformity which I am now exhibiting was caused by my mother being frightened by an Elephant; my mother was going along the street when a procession of Animals were passing by, there was a terrible crush of people to see them, and unfortunately she was pushed under the Elephant’s feet, which frightened her very much; this occurring during a time of pregnancy was the cause of my deformity. The measurement around my head is 36 inches, there is a large substance of flesh at the back as large as a breakfast cup, the other part in a manner of speaking is like hills and valleys, all lumped together, while the face is such a sight that no one could describe it.

The right hand is almost the size and shape of an Elephant’s foreleg, measuring 12 inches round the wrist and 5 inches round one of the fingers; the other hand and arm is no larger than that of a girl ten years of age, although it is well proportioned. My feet and legs are covered with thick lumpy skin, also my body, like that of an Elephant, and almost the same colour, in fact, no one would believe until they saw it, that such a thing could exist.

It was not perceived much at birth, but began to develop itself when at the age of 5 years. I went to school like other children until I was about 11 or 12 years of age, when the greatest misfortune of my life occurred, namely – the death of my mother, peace to her, she was a good mother to me; after she died my father broke up his home and went to lodgings; unfortunately for me he married his landlady; henceforth I never had one moment’s comfort, she having children of her own, and I not being so handsome as they, together with my deformity, she was the means of making my life a perfect misery; lame and deformed as I was, I ran, or rather walked away from home two or three times, but suppose father had some spark of parental feeling left, so he induced me to return home again.

The best friend I had in those days was my father’s brother, Mr. Merrick, hair Dresser, Church Gate, Leicester. When about 13 years old, nothing would satisfy my step-mother until she got me out to work; I obtained employment at Messrs. Freeman’s Cigar Manufacturers, and worked there about two years, but my right hand got too heavy for making cigars, so I had to leave them. I was sent about the town to see if I could procure work, but being lame and deformed no one would employ me; when I went home for my meals, my step-mother used to say I had not been to seek for work.

I was taunted and sneered at so that I would not go home for my meals, and used to stay in the streets with an hungry belly rather than return for anything to eat, what few half-meals I did have, I was taunted with the remark — "That’s more than you have earned." Being unable to get employment my father got me a pedlar’s license to hawk the town, but being deformed, people would not come to the door to buy my wares. In consequence of my ill luck my life was again made a misery to me, so that I again ran away and went hawking on my own account, but my deformity had grown to such an extent, so that I could not move about the town without having a crowd of people gather around me.

I then went into the infirmary at Leicester, where I remained for two or three years, when I had to undergo an operation on my face, having three or four ounces of flesh cut away; so thought I, I’ll get my living by being exhibited about the country. Knowing Mr. Sam Torr, Gladstone Vaults, Wharf Street, Leicester, went in for Novelties, I wrote to him, he came to see me, and soon arranged matters, recommending me to Mr. Ellis, Bee-hive Inn, Nottingham, from whom I received the greatest kindness and attention. In making my first appearance before the public, who have treated me well — in fact I may say I am as comfortable now as I was uncomfortable before. I must now bid my kind readers adieu. “