The London hospital that became the home of The Elephant Man
Behind the doors of one of London’s oldest hospitals is the former home of one of the city’s strangest residents, which remains a medical mystery to this day.
The Royal London Hospital, which opened as the London Infirmary in 1740, became a refuge for Joseph Merrick – more commonly known as the Elephant Man.
Joseph, whose face and voice were distorted with bony growths, enjoyed peace with medical care safe behind the walls of the hospital before his death in 1890.
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But tragically, he has spent most of his life being misunderstood and stigmatized, being viewed by strangers for money as a “freak show” attraction.
Born in Leicester in 1862, Joseph showed no symptoms of his condition until the age of five.
But as his condition worsened, his life became a descent into tragedy.
As he grew older, he developed thickened lips and a bony lump on his forehead. Her feet widened and her arms were different sizes.
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Later, his face contorted and his speech was severely affected – making his words unintelligible.
Despite his deformities, he was able to maintain a close relationship with his mother, Mary Jane, and make friends at school.
But after her mother’s death in 1873, her family life became, in her words, “perfect misery”, as neither her father, also named Joseph, nor her new mother-in-law showed her affection.
At 13, Joseph left school to try to make a living working in a cigar factory.
But as his deformity worsened and his hand dexterity deteriorated, he was forced to find work as a peddler – selling items door to door.
Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding his disfigurement meant people were afraid to open their doors to him and that he couldn’t earn enough money to support himself.
Back home one day in 1877, he was beaten by his father and left home for good.
He was taken in by his uncle, Charles Merrick, and lived with him in his Leicester home for two years.
He continued to try and sell goods door-to-door, but people were so horrified by his appearance that his license was refused upon renewal.
In December 1879, at the age of 17, he became one of the 1,180 residents of the Leicester Union Workhouse.
In 1882, he underwent an operation, performed by a doctor at the working house, to remove much of a growth – which protruded about eight inches around his mouth and made it difficult for him to eat.
In 1884 Joseph left the working house to begin his career as a curiosity show attraction under the name of the Elephant Man, – advertised as “Half-a-Man and Half-an-Elephant” and visited the Midlands before being on display at a penny gaff shop in Whitechapel Road.
There he received a private visit from Dr Frederick Treves, surgeon at the Royal London Hospital, now known for his friendship with Joseph and for saving the life of King Edward VII.
After their first meeting, Dr Treves described Joseph as “the most disgusting specimen of humanity I have ever seen …
His appearance was considered so horrible that when he walked the short distance to the hospital for a checkup two or three times he wore a mask. During a visit he received the card from Dr Treves.
At that time, doctors measured the circumference of her head, wrist, and one of her fingers, which are 36 inches (91 cm), 12 inches (30 cm), and five inches (13 cm), respectively.
His skin was also covered with warty growths, the largest of which produced a foul odor. His skin was sagging in places and he had bony deformities on both legs, right arm and head.
As tastes and mores evolved, the penny gaff shop was closed by police and Joseph was taken on a tour of Europe before being stripped of his savings and abandoned by his manager.
Eventually he was able to return to London in the hope of returning to the Leicester Union Workhouse.
But because of his incomprehensible speech and unusual appearance, he was unable to get help from outsiders to make the 98-mile trip.
When he drew a large crowd, a police officer took him to a waiting room and, after finding Dr Treves’ card, contacted the hospital who then took him in.
Joseph was first admitted with bronchitis and, after being given space to live in the attic, was allowed to stay for the next five months.
Thanks to donor support, funds were raised to make the hospital its permanent home.
He was transferred to two bedrooms in the basement, which were fitted with a specially modified bed that allowed him to sleep upright due to the weight of his head.
While at first he was too scared to leave, except for walks in the yard at night, he eventually gained the confidence to leave his rooms during the day, but was rushed by nurses who feared that ‘it doesn’t scare the patients.
Dr Treves finally learned to understand his scrambled speech and the couple became friendly.
Later, the doctor introduced him to a woman to make her “feel normal” after spending most of her life in isolation in the work house or on tour out of curiosity.
Joseph spent his days reading and making elaborate models of buildings from maps.
During his final years at the hospital, he garnered the support of members of high society and even received a visit from the then Princess of Wales – who gave him a signed photo of herself and sent Christmas cards every year.
After four years in the hospital, Joseph was tragically found dead in his bed on April 11, 1890, at the age of 27.
An autopsy performed by Dr Treves concluded that he had choked when he “experienced” lying down.
Throughout his life, Joseph believed his condition was the result of his mother being run over and frightened by a circus elephant while she was pregnant with him.
To date, the cause of his illness is unknown, and tests carried out no later than 2003 failed to diagnose the illness posthumously.
Joseph’s story continues to be the subject of scholarly intrigue, with many books being written about his life.
The Royal London Hospital Museum also offers a permanent exhibition, in the form of a walking tour, on his unusual case.