Today is the birthday of Joseph Merrick (sometimes known incorrectly as “John”, 1862-1890).
Born normal, the physical deformities that gave him his nickname began to emerge in childhood and were fully manifested by the time he was an adult. After years of attempting to make his living first as an apprentice cigarmaker, then as a street hawker, he endured periods of homelessness and spent several years in the work house before embarking on a career as a human oddity in 1884 at the age of 22. Several music hall professionals collaborated on the enterprise, showing him in converted storefronts and billing him as “The Elephant Man, Half a Man and Half an Elephant.” His career as a professional freak was short, lasting about two years. By then attitudes about the exhibition of human curiosities were changing; and Merrick’s was a particularly shocking case.
The remainder of his short life was spent in a hospital under the care of the physician Sir Frederic Treves — as you no doubt know if you’ve seen either the 1979 stage play or the 1980 film on the subject. Before the play and the film, Merrick was not as well known in the United States as Barnum’s most famous prodigies such as Tom Thumb, Chang and Eng, Zip the Pinhead, or Jo-Jo the Dog Faced Boy. Now I daresay his name is roughly as well known, for better or worse.
It should be said that Merrick was a most singular case. Many people have gotten the false notion from the film that special people were invariably cruelly used and exploited in show business. Having investigated the lives of over 150 of them by this point, I have found that to be the exception rather than the rule, and a rare one at that. At any event, Merrick was treated with terrific humanity by society during the last four years of his life. His death at age 27 was self-inflicted. Throughout his life his condition had demanded that he sleep upright due to the weight of his head, which would either strangulate him or break his neck were he to lie down. One night — for whatever reason — he decided to lie down.
To find out more about the history of show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.