Monday, March 28, 2011

April 11, 1890 --- The Elephant Man

Joseph Merrick is found dead in his bed at the London Hospital, Whitechapel. He was 29. A victim of neurofibramatosis and hideously deformed, Merrick had been a resident at the hospital for most of the past five years. He was under the care of the noted surgeon, Dr Frederick Treves, who'd rescued Merrick after the poor man had been abandoned by the owner of a traveling freak show.  Merrick was exhibited as "The Elephant Man." 

As for the cause of death, Dr. Treves wrote: "He often said to me that he wished he could lie down to sleep 'like other people.' I think he must, with some determination, have made the experiment. The pillow was soft, and the head, when placed on it must have fallen backwards and caused a dislocation of the neck. Thus it came about that his death was due to the desire that had dominated his life - the pathetic but hopeless desire to be 'like other people.'"

A coroner's jury quickly agreed, death by suffocation. Merrick's career had first come to the public's attention in 1886 by a letter to The Times from the hospital superintendent, Mr. Carr Gomm. He described Merrick as "so dreadful a sight" that women and "nervous persons" are likely to "fly in terror." However, Carr Gomm insisted, "He is superior in intelligence, can read and write, is quiet, gentle, not to say even refined." He concluded with a request, "Can any of your readers suggest to me some fitting place where he can be received?" The letter brought brief celebrity status to the unfortunate Merrick. At dedication ceremonies for a new wing at the hospital in 1887, the Prince and Princess of Wales paid a private call.

For six months, he left the hospital to stay in a secluded gamekeeper's cottage in the country but his final days were spent back in Whitechapel. On Easter Sunday morning, only a few days before his death, Merrick took communion and the hospital chaplain reported that Merrick had ""acknowledged the mercy of God which had brought him to this place."

[Playbill 1979, The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance]

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