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ADVERTISER 150: Elephant Man dies in 1890 in Whitechapel, finally accepted by society

PUBLISHED: 19:00 24 November 2016 | UPDATED: 00:34 27 November 2016

1890: Merrick's sudden death shocks London Hospital surgeons

1890: Merrick's sudden death shocks London Hospital surgeons

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ADVERTISER 150: We continue our nightly journey for the East London Advertiser's 150th anniversary looking at some of the big issues that we've covered since our first edition in November 1866. One outstanding story we ran in 1890 was the death of 'The Elephant Man' at the London Hospital at the age of 27 from a bone growth disorder that leaves him badly disfigured...

1884: Joseph Merrick agrees to be photographed [pictures: London Hospital Museum]1884: Joseph Merrick agrees to be photographed [pictures: London Hospital Museum]

1890: Joseph Merrick’s deformity casts him as a freak rejected from his youth by a cruel Victorian society until a surgeon at the London Hospital in Whitechapel, Frederick Treves, takes him in.

Merrick, born in Leicester, is just five when he develops “thick lumpy skin like an elephant, almost the same colour”. His disabled mother Mary Jane, a Sunday school teacher, dies when he is 10 and his father remarries.

The young Joseph leaves school at 13, and finds work rolling cigars, but after three years his right hand deformity worsens and he no longer has the dexterity for work, so he enters the Leicester workhouse at 17.

1884: Merrick's deformed body, photographed for London Hospital surgeon Frederick Traves1884: Merrick's deformed body, photographed for London Hospital surgeon Frederick Traves

But he is unhappy with life at the provincial workhouse and wants top see more of the world. He could do it if he joins a freak show.

Merrick contacts showman Sam Torr in 1884 who agrees to put him in a show and names him ‘The Elephant Man’.

He travels to London and is exhibited in Tom Norman’s Penny Gaff shop at 123 Whitechapel Road, opposite the London Hospital, where he is visited by surgeon Treves and agrees to be examined and photographed.

1890s London Hospital where Merrick lives out his life1890s London Hospital where Merrick lives out his life

But the Penny Gaff is closed by police after two years and Merrick goes on the road with Sam Roper’s travelling fair on the Continent, only to be abandoned on tour and left stranded in Brussels.

He eventually makes his way back by North Sea ferry to Ipswich in 1886 and arrives, destitute, at Liverpool Street station on June 24. He is found by a City of London constable with Surgeon Treves’s card on him. Treves arrives to take him back to Whitechspel, allowing him to live out his life at the London Hospital.

Two new hospital buildings are opened the following year by the Prince and Princess of Wales. Merrick meets Princess Alexandra, finally becoming a celebrity in Victorian high circles.

1890s Whitechapel High Street, looking east towards St Mary's Church and the London Hospital [photo: Tower Hamlets Archive]1890s Whitechapel High Street, looking east towards St Mary's Church and the London Hospital [photo: Tower Hamlets Archive]

But he dies on April 11, 1890, at 3pm. An inquest is held four days later by the Whitechapel Coroner Wynne Baxter, with death by suffocation noted.

1980: It is another 90 years before Merrick’s story is told again in David Lynch’s film The Elephant Man with John Hurt as Merrick and Anthony Hopkins as Surgeon Treves. A new theory emerges that Merrick had rare Proteus syndrome.

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