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Series Feature #11 Life in the Circus from Yesterday to Today! – Joseph Merrick (The Elephant Man) – Part I

Step right up, Step right up! The show is about to begin as we explore the world of the circus and those who made and make a magical place to visit.  The tradition of the circus has a long incredible history as we learned from last week, but that history lesson is not over today as I will make it point of how history and even film has influenced the circus.

It has been a while since we last visited the circus and now we must continue our journey. With the holidays, elections and the civil war taking place it got quite busy but lets back to it.

Previous Profiles and Stories

Stephan Bibrowski (Lionel the Lion-faced Man)

Series Feature #10 Life in the Circus from Yesterday to Today! – Stephan Bibrowski (Lionel the Lion-faced Man) | Joseph’s Adventures in Writing (josephmeyercreatives.com)

General Tom Thumb and Admiral Dot


Ohio Bigfoot Lady


Grady Stiles (Lobster Boy)


The Pinheads Pip/Flip and Schlitizie-


Myrtle Corbin (The Four Legged Girl)


Koo-Koo the Bird Girl


Bearded Women


Camel Girl


The Siamese Twins


In our last visit we discussed one of the most important performers Clowns, yes those lovable yet scary people dressed to kill or laugh whichever one you choose to let into your life, I prefer the lovable hobo clowns. Developed in the 19th century, entertaining audiences with songs and monologues offering words of wisdom on politics, current events and even Shakespeare, one the most famous clowns to date was Dan Rice.

Once the 20th century rolled around clowns attempted to strike out in a new direction and then finally in the 21st century our common clown that many dreads to see, one such famous clown was Ronald McDonald and Bozo the Clown. Oh we can not forget our loveable killer clowns most famous is Pennywise among others.

Wild Animal Acts

As we transition from clowns to the next incredible act, Wild animal acts. Wild animals have been a natural part of the circus dating back to 1831, when the French trainer Henri Martin, performing in Germany, entered a cage with a tiger. Soon followed by the American trainer Isaac A. Van Amburgh, reputedly the first man to stick his head in a lion’s mouth, who in 1838 took his act to England and fascinated the young Queen Victoria.

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In the U.S. Elephants have long to be considered a hallmark of the circus.  Countless other species of wild animals were trained to perform the circus ring during this period, including polar bears, giraffes, hippos and rhinos.

         Going into the 20th century, there would be a marked difference between European and American styles of presenting wild animal acts. Beginning in the late 20th century, in both Britain and the United States, circus owners were often challenged by animal-rights activists who believed that cruelty was involved  in the training of circus animals and who consequently agitated to have such acts banned.

Increased protests and lawsuits by animal-rights groups succeeded in generating public concern for the well being of animals  used in Circuses, particularly elephants. Many circuses responded to such charges by claiming that the days of training animals through punishment were long gone; instead, they insisted, the humane techniques such trainers as Gunther  Gebel-Williams, a German trainer who became famous with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, had become the norm. Such jurisdictions in Europe and the U.S. adapted bans on wild-animal acts or on the bullhook, a sharp pokerlike device used to train and guide elephants.

Changing public sensibilities contributed to growing popularity of animal free circuses such as Cirque du Soleil  and to depressed  ticket sales at Ringling Bros. and other traditional circuses. Ringling announced in 2015 that it would phase out elephant acts within three years ironically reduced ticket sales even further, and in 2017 the circus ceased operations permanently. To this day there still exist animal free circuses such as Circus Vargas, which is circus I attended as well as Ringling Bros.

Animals will always be a favorite of the circus and although I can not verify if animals were abused, I can understand that animals are not naturally meant to entertain us, but they have for centuries been a part of the circus. I do know at certain points yes wild animal acts were abused, one can only imagine how you would tame a tiger, a bear, and an elephant among other things.

Along with the wild animals, it would not be a circus without those unique individuals we called freaks. Although I don’t agree with the term because these are human beings, it was accepted term at the time. The next performer and really just an incredible marvel of a human being was a huge one in history, the incredible Joseph Merrick (AKA The elephant Man).

Joseph Merrick (The Elephant Man)

(1862 – 1890)

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Joseph Merrick often erroneously called John Merrick was an Englishman known for having severe deformities. He was first exhibited at a freak show as the “Elephant Man” and then went to live at the London Hospital after he met Frederick Treves.

Born in Leicester and began to develop abnormally before the age of twelve. His mother died when he was eleven and his father soon remarried. Rejected by his father and stepmother, he left home and went to live with his uncle Charles Merrick. By 1879, 17-year old Merrick entered the Leicester Union Workhouse.

In 1884, he contacted showman Sam Torr and proposed that he should exhibit him. After touring the East Midlands, Merrick traveled to London to be exhibited in a penny gaff shop rented by showman Tom Norman. Norman’s shop was visited by surgeon Frederick Treves who invited Merrick to be examined. After Merrick was displayed by Treves at a meeting of the pathological society of London in 1883, Norman’s shop was closed by police and Merrick joined Sam Roeper’s circus and toured in Europe.

Merrick eventually went back to the London Hospital where he was allowed to stay for the rest of his life. Treves visited him daily and the pair developed a close friendship. Merrick received many visits from the wealthy ladies and gentleman of London society. Although the official cause of death was asphyxia, Treves, who performed the autopsy said Merrick died of a dislocated neck.

Life and Family

Joseph Rockley Merrick was the son of London-born weaver Barnabas Merrick and his wife Mary Jane Potterton. Born apparently healthy with no outward signs of anatomical signs of, and no symptom of any disorder for the first few years of his life. Named after this father, he was given the middle name Carey by his mother, a Baptist, after the preacher William Carey.

The Merricks had two more children. The other two children were William Arthur, born January 1866, died of scarlet fever on December 21st 1870 aged four and Marion Eliza born September 28 1867, born with physical disabilities and died of myelitis and seizures on March 19, 1891, aged 23.  

It has been said that Merrick started to display signed of anatomical disabilities at five years of age with “thick lumpy skin” like that of an elephant and almost the same colour. But as young as 21 months Joseph Merrick is said to have developed a bony lump on his forehead and a loosening and roughening of the skin.

As he grew, a noticeable difference between the size of his left and right arms appeared and both his feet became significantly enlarged. The Merrick family explained his symptoms as a result of Mary being knocked over and frightened by a fairground elephant while pregnant with Joseph.

In addition to his deformities at some point in his childhood, Merrick suffered a fall and damaged his left hip. The injury became infected and left him permanently lame. Although affected by physical deformities, Merrick attended school and enjoyed a close relationship with his mother. She was a Sunday school teacher and his father worked as an engine driver at a cotton factory as well as running a haberdashery business.

Employment and the workhouse

Merrick left school at aged 13, which was typical at the time. His home life was misery as his mother and father showed him no affection. Running way two or three times but brought back each time. At age 13 he found work rolling cigars in a factory but after three years, the deformity in his right hand had worsened and he could no longer do the job. Now unemployed, Merrick spent his days wandering the streets, looking for work and avoiding his cruel stepmother.

He had become a great financial burden to his family and eventually his father secured him a hawker’s license which enabled him to earn money sell items from the haberdashery shop, door to door. The endeavor was unsuccessful due to his facial deformities rendering his speech unintelligible and prospective customers reacted to him in horror due to his physical appearance.

Housewives refused to open doors and people just stared at him but followed him out of curiosity. Failing to make enough money as a hawker to support himself. As he returned home one day in 1877, he was severely beaten by his father and he left home for good.

Now homeless on the streets of Leicester. His uncle, a barber named Charles Merrick heard of his nephews situation, sought him out and offered him accommodation in his home.  Still continuing to Hawk but leading to little or no success as his disfigurement continued to grow worse, the commissioners for Hackney Carriages withdrew his license when it came up for renewal.

His uncle who had two young children to provide for would no longer support his nephew and in late 1879 now 17 years old he entered a workhouse.

Becoming one of the 1,180 residents in the workhouse, was given a classification to determine his place of accommodation. The class system determined which department or ward he would reside in as well as the amounts of food he would receive. Being classified as class one for able bodied males and females. On March 22, 1880, only 12 weeks after entering Merrick signed himself out of the workhouse and spent two days looking for work. With no work to be found, Merrick returned to the workhouse staying for four years.

Life as a freak and curiosity

Merrick’s only escape from the workhouse might be through the world of human exhibitions. His journey began by meeting a music hall comedian and proprietor Sam Torr. Writing to Torr who then came out to visit him at the workhouse. Torr then decided he could make money exhibiting Merrick and made him apart of his traveling exhibits nicknaming the “Elephant man” advertising him as “Half-a-man and Half-an-Elephant” showing him around the East Midlands.

Merrick continue to be exhibited was then reached by showman Tom Norman, who at the time ran a penny gaff shops in the East End of London exhibiting human curiosities. Without a meeting, Norman agreed to take over Merrick’s management and in November, George Hitchcock travelled with Merrick to London.

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Tom Norman

When Tom Norman first saw Merrick, he was dismayed by the extent of his deformities, fearing his appearance might be to horrific. Nevertheless, he exhibited Merrick in the back of an empty shop. Sleeping on an iron bed with curtain drawn around him for privacy.

Norman observed Merrick asleep one morning and learnt he slept sitting up, with his legs drawn up and his head resting on his knees. Due to Merrick’s enlarged head being too heavy, laying down as Merrick put it would risk him breaking his neck.

Norman gathered an audience by standing outside the shop and drawing a crowd through his showman’s patter. Leading his onlookers into the shop, explaining that the Elephant man was not here to frighten you but to enlighten you. As he drew aside the curtain onlookers visibly horrified to observe Merrick up close. The elephant man was moderately successful   and made money primarily from the sales of the autobiographical pamphlet.

Merrick was able to put aside his share of the profits, hoping to each enough to one day buy a home of his own. The shop on Whitechapel Road was directly across the road from the London Hospital, as medical students and doctors visited the shop, curious to see Merrick.

One such visitor was a young house surgeon named Reginald Tuckett. Like his colleagues, Tuckett was intrigued by the Elephant Man’s deformities and hold his senior colleague Frederick Treves.

The Introduction of Treves

Frederick Treves first met Merrick at a private viewing before Norman opened the shop for the day. Treves once recalled that Merrick was the most disgusting specimen of humanity he had ever seen and had never met such a degraded or perverted version of a human being. The viewing last no more than 15 minutes after which Treves returned to work.

Later that day, he sent Tuckett  back to the shop to ask Merrick if might be willing to come to the hospital for an examination. Norman and Merrick agreed and to enable the short distance without drawing attention Merrick wore a costume consisting of an oversized black cloak and a brown cap with a hessian sack covering his face.

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The examination of Merrick

At the hospital Treves examined Merrick, observing he was shy, confused, not a little frightened. At this point Treves assumed the Elephant man was an “imbecile”. Treves measured Merrick from head to toe noting his skin was covered in papillomata which are a form of warty growths, the largest which exuded an unpleasant smell.

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There were bone deformities in his right arm, both legs and in his large skull. Merrick’s speech remained barely intelligible despite his surgery in 1882 to correct his mouth. His left arm and hand were not large and were not deformed. His penis and scrotum were normal. Aside from his deformities Treves concluded Merrick was in good overall health.  Having gone to the hospital two or three time. One of these visits Treves took photos and provided Merrick with a set  that were later added to his autobiographical pamphlet.  On December 2, Treves presented Merrick at a meeting of the Pathological Society of London in Bloomsbury.

A change in Opinion

During this time in Victorian Britain, tastes were changing in regard to freak shows and exhibitions like the Elephant Man. Shows like Norman’s became a cause for concern both on the grounds of decency and due to the disruption caused by the crowds. 

Not long after Merrick’s examination Normans shop was closed down by police on Whitechapel road and Merrick’s managers withdrew him from Norman’s care. In 1885, Merrick went on the road with Sam Ropers traveling fair. Befriending two other performers, “Roper’s Midgets” Bertram Dooley and Harry Bramley – whom on occasion defended Merrick.

The continuance of hostility

The dampening of public enthusiasm for freak shows continued especially for the Elepant man as Merrick and his managers felt it was best to travel to Europe but that was no different as police worked to shut down Ropers Fair. In Brussels Merrick was deserted by his new manager, who stole Merrick’s fifty pounds in savings. Abandoned, Merrick made his way by train to Ostend, where he attempted to board a ferry but was denied. Traveling to Antwerp, able to board a ship bound for Essex. From there he traveled to London. 

Now back in his own country, but had nowhere to go. He approached strangers for help, but his speech was unintelligible and his appearance repugnant. He continued to draw onlookers until a policeman helped him into an empty waiting room, where he huddled in the corner exhausted. Unable to be understood Merrick handed the policeman Treves card. Contacting Treves as he immediately recognized Merrick taking him back to London hospital where he was admitted for bronchitis, washed, fed and then placed in a small isolation room in the hospital’s attic.

The life of Joseph Merrick is quite detailed and to avoid making one large blog I will be breaking it up in two or three parts, until then.

To Be continued…

11 thoughts on “Series Feature #11 Life in the Circus from Yesterday to Today! – Joseph Merrick (The Elephant Man) – Part I”

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