The True History of the Elephant Man

The True History of the Elephant Man

I can’t quite recall when I first heard about The Elephant Man. It was possibly back in the eighties when a, then black now white, singer wanted to purchase The Elephant Man’s bones from the London Hospital Medical College. I had seen some of the David Lynch film on television late at night but had never watched it all the way through. No doubt because it was set in Victorian London, and being filmed in black and white, the film held no great fascination for me. Back in August 2003 I had become interested in Johnny Eck and the film Freaks in general. Also at this time I had started to collect films by David Lynch and subsequently I found a DVD of The Elephant Man on the internet. It was at this time that I bought this book.

Joseph Carey Merrick was born in Leicester in 1860. It was as a toddler that he started to develop the horrible physical deformities that were to stigmatise him for the rest of his life. Now, I’m not going to go through the usual synopsis because you can read that kind of stuff on the web, or you could buy this book. What I’ll do is tell you about the stuff that I didn’t know already.

It was apparently the belief, at the time, that anything that happened to the mother whilst pregnant would affect the child when it was born. Even spilling a liquid like wine or jam on the bump would give the unborn infant a red birth mark. It was said that Joseph’s mother was frightened by a circus elephant as it paraded through the town. As if this could have been the cause of Joseph’s deformity.

There seemed to be some confusion over the christian name of The Elephant Man. For some reason the surgeon Frederick Treves seemed to think that his name was John when all records indicate that his name was in fact Joseph. Possibly Mr Treves misheard Joseph when they first met? No one is sure. It would certainly have been difficult understanding Joseph because of his misshapen mouth.

One thing that isn’t mentioned in the film is the fact that Joseph was able to visit the countryside. Lady Knightley offered him the use of a cottage within the grounds of her home and here he stayed for six weeks. He wrote to Mr Treves telling him of the wild animals he had seen and the bird-calls he had heard. Enclosed in such letters were flowers that Joseph had picked and pressed with great care as if they were rare specimens. Upon receiving them Mr Treves identified them as the commonest of hedgerow plants.

Even with such great physical deformities Joseph Carey Merrick was able to enjoy, at least some, of the things that we, all too often, take for granted.

  • Reviewed on Friday, 23 September 2005
  • Tagged with book review