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Joseph Carey Merrick’s Parents

Joseph Carey Merrick’s Parents – According to Frederick Treves’s memoirs and Joseph’s own autobiography, he loved his mother very much – he wrote:
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“I went to school like other children until I was about 11 or 12 years of age, when the greatest misfortune of my life occurred, namely – the death of my mother, peace to her, she was a good mother to me”.

Mary Jane Merrick (née Potterton) was born on 20 November, 1836, in Evington, a suburb of eastern Leicester. Her parents were farm laborers but they sent her to school, where she learned to read and write. According to the family, she was “crippled” in some way. However, she was able to work as a servant to a candlemaker until she met and married Joseph Rockley Merrick, a cab driver, on December, 1861. She was twenty-five and pregnant; he was twenty-four. Their first child was born on 5th August, 1862. He was christened Joseph for his father and given the middle name of Carey for the eminent Baptist minister, William Carey, who served the poor in Leicester.
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During Joseph’s early years, Mary Jane taught Sunday School at Archdeacon Lane Baptist Church. She gave birth to three more children; John Thomas, William Arthur, and Marion Eliza, but the two younger sons died in infancy, and Marion was also disabled. In addition to her household burdens, she helped in her husband’s haberdashery business, (while he worked as a warehouseman). Mary Jane’s health declined and she died of bronchial-pneumonia on 19 May, 1873 at the age of thirty-six and six months. After Mary Jane died, Rockley Merrick moved the family to a lodging house run by a widow named Emma Wood-Antill. Emma had two daughters, Annie and Flora. The following December, Rockley married Emma. They went on to have three daughters together; Cassandra, Pauline, and Dora.
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Rockley’s new wife made Joseph’s life a “perfect misery”. She forced him to seek ‘hawking jobs’ – walking street to street selling goods from his father’s shop such as boot polish, laces, etc to earn his food……….

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When he joined the sideshows several years later in 1881, Joseph wrote in an autobiography:
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“…. unfortunately for me he married his landlady; henceforth I never had one moment’s comfort, she having children of her own, and I not being so handsome as they, together with my deformity, she was the means of making my life a perfect misery; lame and deformed as I was, I ran, or rather walked away from home two or three times, but suppose father had some spark of parental feeling left, so he induced me to return home again ….”


Unfortunately, Joseph’s deformities were increasing. The initial growth in his mouth was nearly eight inches long, his right arm was overgrown, and he had suffered a crippling injury and infection in his left hip, causing him to limp. Neighbors refused to buy from him. Children taunted him in the streets. Life at home was even worse; his father thrashed him if he failed to meet his quota of sales. Finally Joseph had had enough abuse. He fled home and was taken in by his father’s brother, Charles Barnabas Merrick. Charles and his wife Jane gave Joseph a secure, loving home for two years.
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Frederick Treves wrote in his memoirs that Mary Jane Merrick had abandoned Joseph to the workhouse. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mary Jane’s devoted care gave Joseph a solid foundation of love and attention that allowed him to withstand the worst of life’s circumstances with grace and courage.
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During the course of researching “Measured by the Soul: The Life of Joseph Carey Merrick,” the graves of Joseph’s parents, stepmother, and siblings have all been located, and a well-deserved tribute plaque for Mary Jane Merrick is in the works.

Gabriella Berry

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