The cause of Merrick’s deformities still remains unclear. Image Credit: Public Domain
Born in 1862, Merrick showed no signs of physical deformity for the first few years of his life.
As time passed however, he started to develop abnormal growths across several parts of his body and in particular, his head, which became so riddled with growths that he could barely speak and the immense weight of his skull prevented him from being able to sleep lying down.
His condition and appearance would lead him to become a popular ‘curiosity’ at shows and exhibitions where he was billed as the ‘Elephant Man’ and was described as ‘half-man, half-elephant’.
It was a difficult life and one that would see him mocked and shunned on a daily basis.
Eventually though, Merrick ended up under the care of doctor Frederick Treves at the London Hospital in Whitechapel where he would go on to spend the remaining years of his life.
During that time, he was visited by Mrs. Leila Maturin – the first woman to ever smile at him or shake his hand. The two later corresponded several times and one of these letters, in which Merrick had thanked Maturin for sending him a grouse and a book, has now gone on display in Leicestershire.
“Dear Miss Maturin,” he wrote. “Many thanks indeed for the grouse and the book, you so kindly sent me, the grouse were splendid. I saw Mr Treves on Sunday. He said I was to give his best respects to you. With much gratitude I am Yours Truly, Joseph Merrick, London Hospital, Whitechapel.”
Sadly, Merrick died at the age of just 27 on 11 April 1890. An examination revealed that he had died of a dislocated neck due to the immense weight of his head.
Treves had speculated that it had happened when Merrick had “made the experiment” to lie down in bed “like other people”, something he had avoided for most of his life due to the risk of injury.
The exact nature of the condition he had been suffering from would go on to become one of the most perplexing and hotly debated medical mysteries of all time.