The Elephant Man was a name given to Joseph Merrick, an individual who, during the Victorian Age, found himself in the spotlight for a number of curious and often heart-breaking reasons. Merrick developed a condition which would lead to severe facial disfigurement, making him the object of fascination and ridicule. Merrick led a varied life, on the whole, but not without tragedy. Famously, John Hurt portrayed Merrick in a movie about his life in the early 1980s.
Here are a few fascinating facts about the life about the Elephant Man, and why his legacy is worth remembering.
While Merrick is best known for his facial abnormalities, he would not become disfigured until after the age of five years old. Up until that point, Merrick was developing normally as any other child. As he grew, however, Merrick developed limb handicaps and deformations on his face and head.
It is thought the name ‘The Elephant Man’ stems from an incident that occurred to Merrick’s mother while she was pregnant with him. She is thought to have fallen due to an elephant kick, which she and Merrick’s father believed to be responsible for his crippling abnormalities.
However, his nickname largely arose from being referred to as ‘Half Man, Half Elephant’ at various sideshows. He was exhibited around many of the UK’s cities at a less than sensitive time, crossing London and Nottingham in particular.
The Merrick family’s lives were tinged with tragedy in other ways, too. It is thought that his siblings died young of smallpox and scarlet fever. This was not a particularly healthy era for many people.
Merrick was a budding writer. He’d penned his own short autobiography and poetry, which he often used to undertake by way of coping with the pain and stress of his disfigurements and various illnesses.
Sadly, Merrick found himself at the mercy of sideshow promoters, some of which badly abused him and robbed him of his savings. He was often toured around as something of a spectacle.
Unfortunately, this occurred for long after his death. His skeleton, showing bone disfigurement, was on display at the Queen Mary University, though not in the same manner of a sideshow. His skeleton still resides there, though in private quarters, meaning that only specific people have access to his bones.
News from 1987 stated that pop star Michael Jackson may actually have tried to buy the bones of Joseph Merrick from the University, offering as much as $1 million. However, the University continued to refuse his offer. It’s not clear why Jackson wished to buy the bones, other than to add to a collection of oddities.
It’s also stated that Merrick once found him at the mercy of the police, following a mobbing after arriving in Liverpool. The nature of his disfigurement and a debilitating bronchial condition meant that authorities could not understand what he was saying.
It’s thought that Merrick may had been suffering from a condition that we now know to be Proteus syndrome. This illness is though to cause extreme skin growth, as well as asymmetrical bodily development. At the time, doctors believed he was suffering from nervous syndrome tumours, though this was later declared to not be the case. Of course, during this era, medical diagnosis and treatment were not as efficient as they are today.
It’s thought that Merrick struggled with the weight of his disfigured head while sleeping. It’s actually assumed that this is what contributed to his untimely death, with so much stress having been placed on his cranium.
The movie ‘The Elephant Man’, based on Merrick’s life and starring John Hurt, was a huge success. It was nominated for eight Oscars and won three BAFTAs, claiming the ‘best film’ gong and the ‘best actor’ award for Hurt at the latter. Sadly, the film failed to convert on any of its Oscar nominations.
In fact, the life of Merrick has been portrayed multiple times across stage and screen. He’s even been portrayed in the Elephant Man play, written by Bernard Pomerance, through which stars such as David Bowie, Bradley Cooper and Mark Hamill have all played the lead part.
Do you have any interesting facts about the Elephant Man that we’ve not mentioned? Share them with us here in the comments section below