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Joseph Carey Merrick’s Life Story

Joseph Carey Merrick’s Life Story – Anyone who has ever read the story of Joseph Merrick, could not fail to be captivated by this man’s incredible sensitivity and courage.

He was an intelligent individual, not only being able to write and speak eloquently but also able to read.

The ability to read was a rarity amongst the poorer classes of the 19th century and therefore one can only further admire Joseph for his inner struggle to become educated and to pull himself out of his impoverished background and circumstances.

Born in Leicester, England, in 1862, Joseph first began to develop tumors on his face before his second birthday.

Joseph lived with his Mother (Mary Jane Merrick); younger brother (William Arthur) and sister (Marion Eliza) during his childhood.

His baby brother, John Thomas, died at 3 months (April to July, 1864). Mary Jane died on 19th May 1873 of bronchial-pneumonia when Joseph was just 11.

‘Unfortunately, by all historical accounts, no actual photograph of Merrick’s Mother is reported to have survived the passage of time’.* Interestingly though, according to family & eye witness accounts, she too was ‘crippled’. The photo presented in the film ,’…is that of Phoebe Nicholls, (the actress who portrayed his Mother)’.*

Joseph had lived in several places, one of these was a Workhouse’ where he was forced to publicly work for his keep, (despite his appearance).

Another place, was living with his father and step-mother.

His father certainly didn’t really want him around and there were untold rows over him.

As far as the step-mother was concerned, Joseph was just an embarrassment and inconvenience and she finally gave her husband the ultimatum of, “it’s either him or me”.

If they were going to give Joseph a roof over his head they at least expected him to work for it. He was forced to ‘street-hawk’, selling shoe-black along cold, cobbled neighbouring streets.

It was hard enough for him to walk on even surfaces, but cobble stones were a real hazard.

His form was a source of great amusement for the scores of children that would follow him from street to street, taunting him and calling out cruel names.

His condition quickly worsened as bulbous, cauliflower-like growths grew from his head and body, and his right hand and forearm became a useless club.

In later life, (previous to his involvement with the Whitechapel Hospital), Joseph was most of the time unemployable, destitute and stripped of all his self-worth by the ignorance of the people of the day.

He was prepared to take any job that would offer him a crust.

As a last resort he took a job as a side-show ‘freak’. However, ‘there were no ritual beatings, and neither was he kidnapped from the London Hospital (that part is a product of Mr. Lynch’s artistic lisence – I’m certainly not knocking ‘the Elephant Man’ film – it was superb and I wholeheartedly recommend it).

I’ve dedicated a page to the film and there’s a film trailer too.

The entrepreneur Tom Norman (right), who took Merrick under his wing, was anything but the monster Bytes depicted in the film.

In reality, he treated Merrick with great care – afterall, Joseph was his livelihood.

Joseph’s three page autobiography makes no mention of beatings or mistreatment.

In fact, the experience left him rather well off (he’d amassed some £200 – that was a heck of alot of money in those days).

Surgeon Frederick Treves (later to become, Sir Frederick Treves) of the Whitechapel Hospital (now Royal London Hospital), came to hear of Mr. Merrick and paid him a visit.

He privately viewed him at 123 Whitechapel Road, opposite the then Whitechapel Hospital – now, an Indian Saree Shop (left).

‘Treves expressed scientific/medical interest in Merrick, presenting him before the London Pathological Society (December 2, 1884), and then sent him back on his way.


Joseph arrived at London’s Liverpool Street railway Station in June 1886.

He had been earning a living in the only way he knew how, as a freak.

Freak Shows had become outlawed in the UK by this time, so he worked across the Channel in Belgium.

An Austrian showman, not connected with Tom Norman, robbed Joseph blind, and left him destitute in Belgium.

The Police found Dr. Treves’ business card in Joseph’s pocket.

The mission of this site is to introduce you to the courageous and inspiring life story of Joseph Carey Merrick and to sensitively raise the profile of those with disabilities.

These pages have been created with love and in the hope that we all may learn from Joseph’s unique life experience.

After campaigning for four years, the Webmaster finally succeeded in having Joseph formally and publicly commemorated, by way of a plaque.

The plaque was unveiled on 15th May 2004, by the Lord Mayor or Leicester, in Joseph’s hometown of Leicester.

Gabriella Berry

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