Joseph Merrick: A Skeleton in the University Cupboard

Most of Joseph Merrick’s life sucked. In this he is not alone – life expectancy at his birth, in 1862, was around 40, and his brother died of scarlet fever aged four. London was beset by regular cholera epidemics in which tens of thousands of people defecated themselves to death, producing mountains of corpses and deeply unpleasant smells. But even amongst the misery of the Victorian age, he had an outstandingly and unusually unpleasant life. 


Joseph suffered from significant physical disabilities that seriously impaired his ability to speak, write, work and interact with other people. The cause of these issues has never been conclusively determined, although the most likely cause was Proteus Syndrome, a rarely diagnosed genetic disease. His disfigurement and the effects on his ability to live a normal life led to impoverishment, especially after escaping his abusive father. It is his later life, however, that links more directly to the university in which you are now a student. 


Joseph Merrick first came to Whitechapel in November 1884, as an exhibit in a small shop directly across the road from The Royal London Hospital. The same parade of shops still stand behind the busy stalls of Whitechapel Market; these days the tradesmen are mostly bookies and off-licenses, but in the 1880s at least one played host to that great European tradition: the “freak-show”. It was here, in a shop currently occupied by “Ukay International Saree & 22 CT Gold Jewellers”, that “The Elephant Man” was first displayed in London. 


The inhumanity of the freak show seems abhorrent to modern audiences, with black men displayed as savages in feathers and skins to entertain white audiences, two male dwarfs displayed as a “happy family of midgets” with a baby hired off its mother and the ever-popular “fat ladies”. The crippling economic insecurity of the poor of London fed these shows; the exhibits, in many cases, having little other way to avoid homelessness or the workhouse. Certainly this was true of Joseph, who repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to escape the Leicester workhouse, where he lived until he met the showman who took him to Whitechapel. 


While forming a part of the Whitechapel show, Joseph found it difficult to communicate effectively with anyone except his stage act manager. This stage act involved said manager barking commands at him, as though he were part-man & part-animal. When forced out of the Whitechapel shop by the police, he could not find any house that would let him stay, except in stables or barns. He was sent on a tour of Europe, but this failed to make any money. As a result, Joseph’s manager robbed him of all his savings. Eventually, with difficulty, he made his way back from Brussels to Liverpool Street Station; from there, he was sent to The Royal London Hospital in 1886.


The hospital was originally constructed in 1757 to treat the rapidly expanding population of London’s docklands. Some of its original buildings survive, albeit currently obscured behind large advertising boards while being redeveloped into Tower Hamlets Council’s new “Civic Centre”. The hospital was a central feature of the Victorian East End. The men who worked in it were pioneers of medicine. One amongst them was Frederick Treves, who had a significant influence over the few remaining years of Joseph’s life. 


Treves was the one who secured him a permanent room in the hospital – highly unusual in those days – and met him daily to examine and assist him with his disabilities. At the same time, Treves could never remember Joseph’s name, always referring to him as John, and allowed a stream of visitors to come to see Joseph while he stayed at the hospital, contributing to his continued care there. While the higher class of the visitors may have raised the fundamental situation of Joseph’s life, his body being placed on display for entertainment seems to have changed little.


So went the last years of Joseph Merrick’s life, visited by most of London’s high society in his room at the hospital, until his death in 1890. The vast majority of his time alive was spent suffering, whether at the hands of the Leicester workhouse authorities or unscrupulous freak show managers. Even while somewhat secure in the Royal London Hospital,  Joseph was still put on display and circulated among high society rather than Whitechapel’s lower classes: always treated more as an object than a person, by most who met him. Joseph was, to them, something of interest, not a human being.


The library of Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry is behind the Royal London Hospital, in an old church building with shelves in place of pews and medical paraphernalia in the place of saints in the windows. When Joseph was displayed in the shop on the Whitechapel Road, there was only a chapel where the library now stands, and the current building began construction in the last years of his life. If one passes along the south side of the library, there is a small gate that leads down to the old church crypt, in which now resides the Royal London Hospital Museum. 


After his death, the hospital chemically stripped Joseph’s flesh from his skeleton and mounted him as a display object for medical students, which is still viewable upon request by students at Barts and The London. His flesh was buried in an unmarked grave in the City of London Cemetery near Epping Forest. The utility of his skeleton to the medical community or students at Barts seems extremely limited; no conclusive diagnosis has been made, and it is not clear what new information his hundred-year-old skeleton will provide. A plastic replica of the skeleton remains on display, hung for the entertainment of visitors, in the old church crypt that is now a museum. 


The continued possession and display of these objects by the university (that manages the museum) is disgusting, a testament to fundamental disrespect for a man who suffered in an inhumane display and exhibition throughout his short life. The university claims that they have a legal right to the objects, which is true, and that they are managed with contact from Merrick’s relatives. Neither of these things alleviates the fundamentally problematic idea of a modern university playing host to a modern freak show right beneath its library. Merrick should be allowed the Christian burial granted to his contemporaries, and the plastic replica should not be used to draw visitors to the museum.

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