Little Bits of History

Joe, Not John

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 11, 2012

Joseph Carey Merrick

April 11, 1890: Joseph Carey Merrick dies at age 27. Joe was born August 5, 1862, the eldest of three children. At the age of two, he began to have discolored bumps growing on or under his skin. Disfiguring lumps grew on his neck, chest, and the back of his head. Other children in the area began to tease him. By the age of 12, when his mother died, his right arm and hand had grown so deformed they were useless.

Joe’s father remarried and his new stepmother didn’t wish to care for the boy. He tried selling goods on the street, but due to his repulsive physique he was unsuccessful. Tired of being teased and fighting with his stepmother, he left home. He ended up in a workhouse twice before August 29, 1884. At that time, he signed up with a freak show and became The Elephant Man. While on display, Dr. Frederick Treves passed through and offered the young man his card. Dr. Treves wished to examine Joe, but didn’t force the issue. The freak show owner was kind to Merrick and he did well. Freak shows were outlawed in the United Kingdom and so Merrick headed to the continent.

There, he was hired, but not treated at all kindly. He was robbed of his life savings and left to his own devices. He made his way back to England. He made it to the Liverpool Street train station where he was too ill to continue. He still had Dr. Treves’s business card and the doctor was called. Merrick was taken to London Hospital where he lived out the rest of his life. Due to interest in his case by royalty, he was better treated. He was found dead in bed, apparently trying to sleep lying down. The weight of his misshapen head was too great and crushed his windpipe, suffocating the young man.

Merrick was highly intelligent and remained a kind and caring person throughout his life. He didn’t embrace bitterness even though there was certainly cause to do so. He was misdiagnosed as suffering from elephantiasis. In 1976, examination of the skeletal remains led to a diagnosis of neurofibromatosis, a rare disease causing tumors to grow on the nerves. This was still felt to be an erroneous diagnosis. In 1996, after studying x-rays and CT scans of the skeleton, Dr. Amita Sharma delivered a diagnosis of Proteus syndrome, however DNA studies done in 2003 do not agree with this finding.

I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man! – Joseph Merrick, from the movie The Elephant Man

Of course there is no formula for success except perhaps an unconditional acceptance of life and what it brings. – Arthur Rubinstein

Acceptance is not submission; it is acknowledgment of the facts of a situation. Then deciding what you’re going to do about it. – Kathleen Casey Theisen

Happiness can exist only in acceptance. – George Orwell

Also on this day:

Coming to America – In 1890 Ellis Island becomes the national immigration center.
Civil Rights Act – In 1968, President Johnson signed the bill into law.
Elks – In 1876, the Elks were organized.

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