Joseph Merrick was born in Leicester in 1862, the son of an engine driver and haberdasher. He had no outward signs of deformities in his early years. He had two younger siblings, one of whom died in infancy, while the other had physical disabilities. Merrick himself reported that he began showing deformities when he was about five, beginning as thick and lumpy skin that was greyish in colour. Other sources report his deformities began when he was just under two years of age, and were begun as swellings of the lips and a bony growth on his forehead. In either case, his arms began to grow markedly different in size, and his feet began to swell. He also suffered an injury to his leg in childhood that caused him to have a permanent limp. Despite his deformities he attended public school.
He left school at the age of twelve, and from there attempted several times to leave home and seek gainful employment in a factory or as a hawker. However, his deformities prevented skilled work with his hands, and customers could not understand his speech due to his facial deformities. He was briefly cared for by an uncle until entering the Leicester Union Workhouse at 17. In 1884 he offered himself as a human curiosity. He was exhibited in a shop on the Whitechapel Road, which was located across the street from the London Hospital. He received a number of doctors interested in his case, most notably Frederick Treves. In 1885 his shop in Whitechapel was shut down due to changing sensibilities regarding freak shows, and he travelled to continental Europe, where he was eventually abandoned by his manager, who stole all of his savings, forcing him to travel back to England on his own. He arrived in England in 1886, but had nowhere to go, and was unable to communicate due to his speech-obstructing deformities. A police officer helped him contact Treves, who had given Merrick a business card. Merrick was admitted to the London Hospital for bronchitis.
There, he received treatment and was eventually permanently housed with the help of public donations solicited through The Times. He received his own rooms in the attic, and became a curiosity for society patrons, including Princess Alexandra and other members of the royal family. He became close friends with Treves, and spent most days reading or constructing a model of a church. Throughout the last years of his life his health steadily deteriorated. On April 11th, 1890 Merrick died at the age of 27. An inquest into his death was conducted by Wynne Edwin Baxter, and was ruled accidental. The cause of death was formally given as asphyxia. Treves, who conducted the autopsy, declared that it had been caused by a dislocated neck, brought on by the enormous weight of his head.
The cause of his deformities is unknown. At the time, the belief in "maternal impression" was strong, suggesting that a powerful psychological influence on the mother would cause an imprint on the child she was carrying. Merrick's mother had been startled by an elephant at a fair while pregnant with Merrick, and this was suggested as the cause of his deformities. This was the version that Merrick believed all his life. Current theory has been unable to give a conclusive cause, but several suggestions have been made. Tests of these theories have proven inconclusive thus far.
The Elephant Man
Merrick appears as the main and title character of this critically acclaimed 1980 biographical film, directed by David Lynch. He is portrayed by John Hurt.
Merrick appears as a minor background character in this film, primarily concerned with the contemporary Jack the Ripper murders. He is portrayed by Anthony Parker.
How to Make a David Lynch Film
Merrick appears as a minor character in this metafilm's exploration of the making of a David Lynch film. He is portrayed by Joe McClean.
The Elephant Man
Originally staged in 1977 in New York, Merrick is the main character of this biographical play, which has since been revived in New York and London's West End. The role was originated by David Schofield. Other actors to play the role include David Bowie, Mark Hamill, and Bradley Cooper.
Joseph Merrick, dit Elephant Man
Merrick features as the main character in this opera piece by Laurent Petitgirard.
The Elephant Man
Merrick appears in this television film adaptation of the 1977 play of the same name. He is portrayed by Philip Anglim.
Freaks of the Moon
Merrick appears in this short comedy-horror television film. He is portrayed by David Hartman.
Merrick appears as a minor character in two episodes of this television series, making his first appearance in "Pure as the Driven" and his final in "Am I not Monstrous?". This series suggests a friendship between Merrick and Edmund Reed, and is unique in implying that Merrick was murdered. He is portrayed by Joseph Drake.