Joseph Carey Merrick:

The Story Behind the Sideshow Attraction

One-hundred and forty-one years ago, a baby boy named Joseph Carey Merrick was born. As with any other healthy birth, Joseph was a beautiful little human with proud parents. As time went on, he grew to be a happy toddler. Until he began to develop strange lumps on his face. By the time he was five, the right side of Joseph’s face was covered with tumors. From then on, his body would develop into the most tragic case of deformity the field of medicine has ever seen. His life was one of suffering and darkness, and this is his story.

Joseph Carey Merrick was born on August 5th, 1862 to Mary Jane Poppleton and Joseph Merrick, Sr. Soon after, his brother William and sister Eliza Marion were born into the family as well. However, the happiness that befell the family with the birth of the three children was short-lived when William fell ill and died of scarlet fever on Christmas. It wasn’t long before Joseph began to show signs of a serious medical disorder. The small lumps on the side of his face were ignored until he was five years old, when they began to cover the rest of his body. Then, when Joseph was eleven years old, his mother died of bronchial-pneumonia on May 19th 1873. Joseph was devastated. He would later write in his journal that the death of his mother really was a tragedy. He ended the entry with “peace to her, she was a good mother to me” (Discovery Health).

One year after his mother’s death, Joseph’s father married the landlady, Emma Wood Antill. This marks the beginning of Joseph’s true torture. His deformity had gotten so bad that he was unable to attend school or even walk out of his front door without being ridiculed. His head had grown to an enormous size, measuring 36 inches in circumference. Enlargement of his skull, right arm and feet had become steadily worse as he grew older. Joseph’s skin grew loose and rough in texture and acquired a grayish color that resembled elephant skin. His arm and feet grew more horribly twisted and hiss peech was effected by a bony mass that grew and protruded from his upper lip, making it hard to speak and almost impossible to smile. His nose was merely a lump of flesh, only recognizable as a nose from it’s position on his face. His right arm, which eventually became unusable, was 12 inches around the wrist and five inches around one of the fingers. Joseph was also covered with a very sickening stench which was hard to tolerate.

Joseph’s step-mother forced Joseph to work for food by selling items door to door. But with his gruesome appearance, he was unable to make enough money to satisfy her. In his late teens, Joseph was inevitably kicked out of his home and onto the streets to fend for himself.

Joseph approached near starvation before his uncle found him and took him into his home. Joseph later wrote that his uncle was “the best friend [he] had in those days” (Trull, 1). But, as did every other possibility for salvation in Joseph’s life, his stay with his uncle became short lived due to lack of money and Joseph’s inability to work.

As a last desperate resort, Joseph took a job with Tom Norman, the owner of a successful carnival attraction. Joseph became one of the most popular sideshow “freaks” of his time and because of his grotesquely protruding upper lip, he was tagged as The Elephant Man. Even though he was being displayed to hundreds as a human oddity, Joseph claimed to have been treated well. At this point in time, once a “freak” gained a certain amount of respect as a successful attraction, he was treated as any other talented entertainer. Tom Norman decided to rent a small shop in London primarily for the display of The Elephant Man. The shop was located directly across from the London Hospital and the audience at its grand opening consisted of nurses and doctors as well as the usual spectators.

Word of Joseph Merrick traveled back to a surgeon at the hospital named Sir Fredrick Treves,