Today in history, John Merrick dies

He was not an animal, he was a human being!

Joseph Merrick suffered from a rare disease which was not actually the elephantiasis that provided his unfortunate nickname. But The Proteus Syndrome Man or even worse, The Neurofibromatosis Man, wouldn’t be a very good movie title, so the misdiagnosis probably worked out for the best.

Merrick was born in England in 1862. When he was a toddler, it quickly became clear that something was terribly wrong when disfiguring tumors sprouted on his face.

Merrick believed he had become deformed because his mother was frightened by an elephant. Even considering the science of the day, this was a ludicrous idea, but then again Merrick didn’t get the chance to receive a high-quality education.

Merrick’s mother died when he was 10. His stepmother couldn’t deal with the child’s escalating deformity and insisted that his father throw him out on the street.

By the age of 12, Merrick was peddling shoe polish on street corners, where he was exposed to the elements as well as the taunts, bullying and general persecution of his fellow urchins. Later he became a ward of the state, forced to live and work in a welfare sweatshop.

Merrick’s face and body were covered with massive lumpy growths, hard tumors made of bone.  A lackadaisical attempt to cut away some of the excess growth failed, and Merrick’s deformity grew.

Everywhere he went, crowds gathered around to gape at his deformities, without paying so much as a penny. Putting two and two together, Merrick decided to pursue the most obvious career choice that lay before him — sideshow freak. If he was going to be a spectacle, he could at least profit from the process.

Despite popular myths about the Elephant Man, Merrick wrote in a short autobiography that his time as a sideshow freak wasn’t particularly sordid or hurtful. Real life was hurtful. In the sideshow, Merrick said, he was treated only with the “greatest kindness.”

Although his life had been filled with clamor, his death came quietly. Merrick died in bed at the age of 27. Through his life, Merrick had slept in an upright position because of his deformities, but on the night of April 11, 1890, he lay down on his back in bed and apparently asphyxiated from the weight of his chest.


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