New app goes on tour with ‘Elephant Man’ Joseph Merrick through 1880s Whitechapel
- Credit: London Hospital Museum
The story of ‘Elephant Man’ Joseph Merrick is the main theme of a new audio tour of Whitechapel in the 1880s through his own eyes.
The guide tour compiled by Queen Mary University researchers includes an immersive history available through a smartphone app released today about the London Hospital, where Merrick lived out the last few years of his life shunned by society for his disfigured body until he died in 1890 aged 27.
“Londoners flocked to Whitechapel for its music halls and freak shows,” Queen Mary University historian Dr Nadia Valman explains.
“But the authorities were cracking down on public displays of people with disabilities like Merrick.”
The audio brings Victorian Whitechapel to life through the voices of Merrick, the surgeon Frederick Treves who took him in and the resourceful young Matron Eva Luckes, using actors like Samuel Barnett and Catherine Cusack.
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It is authentically based on hospital archives, such as Merrick’s autobiography and Treves’s memoirs.
Merrick was just five when in 1868 he developed “thick lumpy skin like an elephant, almost same colour”. He left school at 13 to find work rolling cigars, but after three years his deformity got worse and he no longer had dexterity for employment and had to go into a workhouse at 17.
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But a resourceful Merrick contacts showman Sam Torr in 1884 who names him ‘the Elephant Man’ and puts him in freak show. He is exhibited in Tom Norman’s penny gaff shop in the Whitechapel Road, opposite the London Hospital, where surgeon Traves examines and photographs him.
The freak show closes two years later and Merrick is on the road with a travelling fair, but left abandoned on the Continent, stranded in Brussels.
Merrick somehow makes his way back by steamship to Ipswich in 1886 and arrives at Liverpool Street station destitute, but is found by police with Surgeon Treves’s card on him. Treves takes him back to the London Hospital, allowing him to stay the remainder of his life.
“The ‘London’ by the late Victorian period had grown into the largest general hospital in the country,” Queen’s Mary’s Dr Valman explains. “There was more thought to human interactions between medical staff and patients. Operations, once conducted without anaesthetics before an audience of students, were becoming less theatrical.”
The ‘I am Human’ audio guide uses Whitechapel’s street market and the imposing old hospital building as a dramatic backdrop for exploring the Victorian East End’s medical care.
It ends at the Royal London Hospital museum, which has exhibits on Merrick. The guide can be downloaded with the izi.Travel app from Apple Store, Google Play or Windows Phone Store.