Joseph Merrick was born in 1862, the son of an engine driver and haberdasher. He had no outward signs of deformities in his early years. He had two younger siblings, one of whom died in infancy, while the other had physical disabilities. Merrick himself reported that he began showing deformities when he was bout 5. They apparently began as thick and lumpy skin that was greyish in colour. Other sources report his deformities began when he was just under two years of age, and were begun as swellings of the lips and a bony growth on his forehead. In either case, his arms began to grow markedly different in size, and his feet began to swell. He also suffered an injury to his leg sometime in his childhood that caused him to have a permanent limp. Despite his deformities he attended public school.
In 1873 his mother died, and his father remarried and moved the family in with the other woman. At the age of twelve he left school and, as he did not get on well with his father or step-mother, attempted to leave home soon after, but was returned. At thirteen he had a job in a cigar factory, but the deformity of his right hand grew worse and soon he was unable to perform his job and was forced to leave. He became a financial burden on the family, and his father got him a hawker's license to sell the products of the haberdashery business. His deformities did not lend themselves to door-to-door salesmanship, as it was difficult for people to understand him, if he could even persuade them to open their door. In 1877 his father beat him severely, and he left home. For the next two years he was cared for by his uncle, and Merrick continued to hawk. However, as before, he was unable to support himself, and at the age of 17 he left his uncle's house and went to Leicester Union Workhouse. In March of 1880 he left the workhouse and went searching for work, a quest that met with no success. He returned to the workhouse, and remained there for four years. In 1882 he underwent surgery to reduce the size of the mass on his face, which was severely inhibiting his ability to eat and speak. He underwent this operation in the infirmary of the workhouse.
In 1884 Merrick again determined to escape the workhouse. To this end he wrote to a music hall owner, Sam Torr, offering himself as a human curiosity. Torr hired him on, and assigned several managers to aid Merrick in becoming a travelling attraction. Merrick was first exhibited in a shop on Whitechapel
Road, which was located across the street from the London
Hospital. His show mainly earned money from the sale of a pamphlet, "The Autobiography of Joseph Carey Merrick", which may or may not have been written by him but which nonetheless contained mostly true information. Because he was situated across from the hospital he received a number of doctors interested in his case along with the general public, most notably Reginald Tuckett, a house surgeon and his colleague Frederick Treves. Tuckett requested Merrick undergo an examination at the hospital, which he consented to. This examination detailed the extent of deformities and determined he was in otherwise good health. He returned to the hospital two or three times before requesting he not be taken there anymore. In 1885 his shop in Whitechapel was shut down due to changing sensibilities regarding freak shows, and he began travelling with Sam Roper's fair. He travelled to Continental Europe
but was no better received than he had been in England
. He was eventually abandoned by his manager, who stole all of his savings, forcing him to travel back to England on his own, eventually making it back to his home country in 1886. There he had nowhere to go, and was unable to communicate due to his speech-obstructing deformities. A police officer helped him back to the station where Treves, who had given Merrick a business card, was contacted. Merrick was admitted to the London Hospital for bronchitis.
At the hospital it was determined that his health had deteriorated quite a bit from where it had been when he last visited the hospital, and also that he had probably developed a heart condition that would prove ultimately fatal. He was kept at the hospital and his health improved, however the hospital was unsure if they could keep him long-term. They appealed for help in The Times, and received overwhelming monetary support from several donors, enabling them to care for Merrick. He was given two rooms in the attic of the hospital, with a specially constructed bed and no mirrors, at the request of Treves. While at the hospital he formed a friendship with Treves, who was the first person to be able to consistently understand Merrick's speech. He also gave Merrick his first true interaction with a woman- all women that Merrick had met to this point had been terrified of his appearance. This meeting allowed him to overcome some of the depression that he had begun to experience. He spent most days reading and constructing buildings out of card. Also during his time in the hospital he became an object of interest for many members of the London high society, including Princess Alexandra
and other members of the royal family. He met the princess in 1887, and every year after that she sent him a Christmas card. On three occasions he was able to leave the hospital for the countryside, and at least once was able to attend the theatre, where he viewed a pantomime.
Throughout the last years of his life his health was steadily deteriorating. His head had continued to swell as his deformities became more and more enlarged. On April 11th, 1890 Merrick died at the age of 27. An inquest into his death was conducted by Wynne Edwin Baxter
, and was ruled accidental. The cause of death was formally given as asphyxia. Treves, who conducted the autopsy, declared that it had been caused by a dislocated neck, brought on by the enormous weight of his head.
The cause of his deformities is unknown. At the time, the belief in "maternal impression" was strong. This belief suggested that a powerful psychological influence on the mother would cause an imprint on the child she was carrying. It was suggested that Merrick's mother had been startled by an elephant at a fair while pregnant with Merrick, and this was the cause of his deformities. This was the version that Merrick believed all his life. Current theory has been unable to give a conclusive cause, but several suggestions have been made. Early suggestions were that he suffered from a combination of dermatolysis, cutis laxa and a bone disorder. Other relatively contemporary suggestions include neurofibromatosis type I, Maffucci syndrome, or Albright's disease. In 1986 it was suggested he suffered from Proteus syndrome. In 2001 it was suggested he suffered from a combination of both neurofibromatosis type I and Proteus syndrome. Tests have proven inconclusive thus far.