The Elephant Man’s Hat

October 23, 2011

Arriving at Whitechapel – the single place in London still most closely associated with events which took place there over a century ago – it’s easy to feel you’ve stepped back in time. Arriving at the Underground station, you step out into a narrow railway shed made of wood and huge steel rivets. The only changes to the station since it opened in 1896 have been cosmetic ones; the structure still looks much the same as it did 115 years ago.

Directly opposite stands the London Hospital, which, like the station is much unchanged. It doesn’t take much – in my case, the sepia setting on my camera – to conjure up the East End of the 1880s (although it didn’t have the prefix ‘Royal’ until 1990, when it celebrated it’s 250th year.)

Even more remarkably, aside from the station and the hospital, the old shops next to the station remain untouched. While the occupants have changed countless times over the century, the fabric – the bricks and mortar – remain the same.

Looking back across the road from the London Hospital, the view is much the same as it would have been in the 1880s, when a Dorset-born surgeon named Frederick Treves (1853-1923) first came to work there as a Lecturer on Anatomy.

It was in this house – No. 259, Whitechapel Road, now the UKAY International Saree Centre, with an immigration service, mini cab office, travel agent and homeopathy clinic in the rooms above – where Treves first saw the man with whom his name would forever be associated.

Joseph Merrick (1862-1890) – better known as The Elephant Man – is, along with Jack The Ripper, one of the men most closely associated with Whitechapel. And in a small museum attached to the hospital in the crypt of St Augustine in Newark Street are the sole handful of items associated with his short life which still exist.

None are more immediately evocative of his unique life than the hat and mask which he supposedly wore on the night he first visited the London Hospital in 1884.

Born in Leicester, “at the age of 5 years”, bony lumps and thick skin started to deformed and enlarge Merrick’s head, face, arms and legs. He was 11 when his mother died (by his own account, she doted on him) and just 12 when he left school and went to work “at Messrs. Freeman’s Cigar Manufacturers, and worked there about two years, but my right hand got too heavy for making cigars, so I had to leave them.”

As Merrick’s physical afflictions became progressively worse, work became harder to find (his father had once sent him out to sell products door to door, with predictable results) and he spent four years in the Leicester Union workhouse. Merrick recalled his time there with dread, and realised the only way to leave was to make a living. He realised that the deformities which prevented him from working were so extreme they could actually be used to his advantage. From the workhouse, he contacted two local showmen, music hall comic Sam Torr and music hall proprietor J. Ellis, with a plan to exhibit himself.

So thought I, I’ll get my living by being exhibited about the country. Knowing Mr. Sam Torr, Gladstone Vaults, Wharf Street, Leicester, went in for Novelties, I wrote to him, he came to see me, and soon arranged matters, recommending me to Mr. Ellis, Bee-hive Inn, Nottingham, from whom I received the greatest kindness and attention.

It was Torr, Ellis and a travelling showman ‘Little George’ Hitchcock who decided to present Merrick as ‘The Elephant Man, Half-a-Man and Half-an-Elephant’ as they toured around the East Midlands.

Joseph Merrick, 1888

Realising he only had a limited regional circuit to display Merrick on before exhausting the audiences, Torr contacted Tom Norman (1860-1930), a London-based showman who specialised in presenting human oddities like the Skeleton Woman, The Balloon Headed Baby and Mademoiselle Electra (billed as “The Only Electric Lady — A Lady Born Full of Electricity”, she gave people an electric shock while shaking their hands.)

Tom Norman in his later successful career as an auctioneer

Norman specialised in penny gaffs – small rooms where sub-music hall, amateur entertainment turns could be seen for the entrance fee of a penny, which, by the 1880s, had largely fallen out of fashion. He took over Merrick’s management at the end of 1884 – although he was initially so shocked by Merrick’s appearance, he was reluctant to display him, thinking he looked too horrific to be a successful novelty. Thus Merrick came to be displayed in a vacant greengrocer’s at 123 Whitechapel Road (the road number has since been changed to 259.)

To accompany the display, a 3-page pamphlet – The Autobiography of Joseph Carey Merrick – was printed (it is where the above quotes are taken from.) Alongside claiming that his features were the result of his mother being startled by an elephant while pregnant, he added that:

The measurement around my head is 36 inches, there is a large substance of flesh at the back as large as a breakfast cup, the other part in a manner of speaking is like hills and valleys, all lumped together, while the face is such a sight that no one could describe it. The right hand is almost the size and shape of an Elephant’s foreleg, measuring 12 inches round the wrist and 5 inches round one of the fingers; the other hand and arm is no larger than that of a girl ten years of age, although it is well proportioned. My feet and legs are covered with thick lumpy skin, also my body, like that of an Elephant, and almost the same colour, in fact, no one would believe until they saw it, that such a thing could exist.

While he might not have been the sole author of the pamphlet (at the very least, it bears a showman’s hand embellishing the truth), it is a common misconception that Merrick was a cruelly-treated victim of the showmen (which is how he was frequently portrayed later in popular culture, and, indeed, in the memoir of Treves.) Merrick was not just a willing partner in the enterprise, but the man who came up with the plan of exhibiting himself in the first place. He also shared in the profits and had been saving as much as he could in the hope of buying his own house.

In making my first appearance before the public, who have treated me well — in fact I may say I am as comfortable now as I was uncomfortable before.

But by 1884, the display of human oddities was becoming unpopular and the Elephant Man display at Whitechapel was shut by the police just a few weeks after it opened.

One of the visitors before it was closed was the 31-year-old Frederick Treves, who had been urged to visit by a younger surgeon friend.

He described first seeing Merrick in his 1922 memoirs The Elephant Man and Other Reminscences (published at the end of his life, they contain numerous errors which many put down to old age, including Treves stating that Merrick’s first name was ‘John’.)

The whole of the front of the shop, with the exception of the door, was hidden by a hanging sheet of canvas on which was the announcement that the Elephant Man was to be seen within and that the price of admission was twopence. Painted on the canvas in primitive colours was a life-size portrait of the Elephant Man. This very crude production depicted a frightful creature that could only have been possible in a nightmare. It was the figure of a man with the characteristics of an elephant. The transfiguration was not far advanced. There was still more of the man than of the beast. This fact—that it was still human—was the most repellent attribute of the creature. There was nothing about it of the pitiableness of the misshapened or the deformed, nothing of the grotesqueness of the freak, but merely the loathsome insinuation of a man being changed into an animal. Some palm trees in the background of the picture suggested a jungle and might have led the imaginative to assume that it was in this wild that the perverted object had roamed.

When I first became aware of this phenomenon the exhibition was closed, but a well-informed boy sought the proprietor in a public house and I was granted a private view on payment of a shilling. The shop was empty and grey with dust. Some old tins and a few shrivelled potatoes occupied a shelf and some vague vegetable refuse the window. The light in the place was dim, being obscured by the painted placard outside. The far end of the shop—where I expect the late proprietor sat at a desk—was cut off by a curtain or rather by a red tablecloth suspended from a cord by a few rings. The room was cold and dank, for it was the month of November. The year, I might say, was 1884. The showman pulled back the curtain and revealed a bent figure crouching on a stool and covered by a brown blanket. In front of it, on a tripod, was a large brick heated by a Bunsen burner. Over this the creature was huddled to warm itself. It never moved when the curtain was drawn back. Locked up in an empty shop and lit by the faint blue light of the gas jet, this hunched-up figure was the embodiment of loneliness. It might have been a captive in a cavern or a wizard watching for unholy manifestations in the ghostly flame. Outside the sun was shining and one could hear the footsteps of the passers-by, a tune whistled by a boy and the companionable hum of traffic in the road.

The showman—speaking as if to a dog—called out harshly: “Stand up!” The thing arose slowly and let the blanket that covered its head and back fall to the ground. There stood revealed the most disgusting specimen of humanity that I have ever seen. In the course of my profession I had come upon lamentable deformities of the face due to injury or disease, as well as mutilations and contortions of the body depending upon like causes; but at no time had I met with such a degraded or perverted version of a human being as this lone figure displayed. He was naked to the waist, his -feet were bare, he wore a pair of threadbare trousers that had once belonged to some fat gentleman’s dress suit.

Treves arranged with Norman to examine Merrick at the hospital opposite the following day – but there was a problem.

I became at once conscious of a difficulty. The Elephant Man could not show himself in the streets. He would have been mobbed by the crowd and seized by the police. He was, in fact, as secluded from the world as the Man with the Iron Mask. He had, however, a disguise, although it was almost as startling as he was himself. It consisted of a long black cloak which reached to the ground. Whence the cloak had been obtained I cannot imagine. I had only seen such a garment on the stage wrapped about the figure of a Venetian bravo. The recluse was provided with a pair of bag-like slippers in which to hide his deformed feet. On his head was a cap of a kind that never before was seen. It was black like the cloak, had a wide peak, and the general outline of a yachting cap. As the circumference of Merrick’s head was that of a man’s waist, the size of this headgear may be imagined. From the attachment of the peak a grey flannel curtain hung in front of the face. In this mask was cut a wide horizontal slit through which the wearer could look out. This costume, worn by a bent man hobbling along with a stick, is probably the most remarkable and the most uncanny that has as yet been designed. I arranged that Merrick should cross the road in a cab, and to insure his immediate admission to the college I gave him my card.

In Norman’s autobiography, he stated Merrick went to the hospital “two or three” times, but then refused to go any more, feeling “like an animal in a cattle market.”

Following a disastrous tour of Brussels in 1886, where Merrick was abandoned by a promoter who ran off with his money and had to make his own way back to England, he found himself at Liverpool Street Station. Alone, the object of much unwanted curiosity, and fighting to make himself understood to the police, who’d dragged him away to stop the inquisitive crowds gathering around him, he handed over the card Treves had given him two years before.

Treves was contacted and the two men returned to the London Hospital, where Merrick was signed in – his age was given as 26, not 24 – and where he was eventually given permanent quarters. Unable to do much to help him, Treves displayed Merrick to the great and good – as much a showman as Sam Torr or Tom Norman.

Merrick entertained visitors much as did in the vacant greengrocer’s across the road, although now those who came to see him were aristocrats and did their best to hide their horror. He wrote them charming, courteous and childlike letters once they’d gone – the only surviving example known is on display in the museum.

Next to it is a cardboard church which Merrick made for the actress Madge Kendall (1848-1935), who was a prominent supporter and fundraiser for him, although it’s uncertain if they ever actually met (she did, however, send someone along to his room to teach him basket weaving after he’d expressed an interest in learning.)

The German printed paper models were frequent gifts from Merrick, who was able to write and work with his largely undeformed left arm, but again, this is the only one known to survive.

Merrick died in his sleep in his basement room in the East Wing overlooking Bedford Square on the afternoon of 11 April 1890, the result of a dislocated neck caused by the weight of his head. Due to spinal deformities, he had to sleep on his knees with his head forward; on the night he died, he had lain down – Treves wrote in his memoirs that Joseph had always wanted to sleep “like other people.” He was 27.

The coroner at his inquest was Wynne Edwin Baxter, who had come to prominence during the notorious Jack the Ripper murders of 1888. Nothing belonging to Baxter is in the museum, but the gloves of pathologist Sir Thomas Openshaw (1856-1929), who identified the piece of kidney sent by the Ripper to Inspector Lusk, are on display, along with his collection of Masonic medals.

The Elephant Man and the Ripper represented the two extremes of humanity in Whitechapel in the 1880s. Both became world famous under their pseudonyms, both are immediately associated with Whitechapel, and both form part of the underbelly of poverty and misfortune in London during the 1880s.

But while Merrick was an ordinary, decent man with a face that made him seem inhuman, the Ripper was his mirror image; a man without a face who came to represent inhumanity. That both should have lived out their very different lives in the same place at the same time is one of London’s strangest stories.

Merrick’s skeleton is kept by the Royal College of Surgeons, but it has never been on public display.

The Royal London Hospital Museum is in the former crypt of St Philip’s Church, Newark Street, Whitechapel, London, E1 2AA. Nearest tube: Whitechapel.

Note: My thanks to Mae for correcting a couple of errors in this piece. Her fascinating site dedicated to Merrick is at http://www.josephcareymerrick.com/

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2 Responses to “The Elephant Man’s Hat”

  1. Mae said

    Nicely written bio and comparison as the opposite of Jack the Ripper.
    Just a couple of comments -Joseph requested an instructor to learn basketweaving (perhaps he was bored), and he was 27 when he died in the afternoon of April 11, 1890.
    Keep your eye out for a brand-new full-length bio of Joseph with new discoveries and never-seen before photographs from his life!
    Mae
    Friends of Joseph Carey Merrick Foundation

    • Thanks Mae – I consulted your site for the entry and enjoyed it greatly. About time Merrick had a new biography dedicated to him; been a long time since the last one, so I’m very glad to hear someone’s embarked on a new one. Thanks for the kind words – all the best, Marc (darkestlondon.com)

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