I see in today’s paper that poor Merrick, the ‘Elephant Man’, is dead...…..
Four days after Easter Joseph Carey Merrick probably enjoyed his last evening walk in the gardens of the London Hospital, taking in the evening scents of the sun-kissed sweet pea and admiring the delicate peonies as he watched his last sunset on that chilly but dry spring evening of 10th April 1890.
The following day the 11th April, Miss Emma Ireland, the nursing sister of Blizzard Ward at the London Hospital who had known Joseph since his arrival four years earlier, dropped in to see Joseph in his rooms at Bedstead Square to see how he was that morning, Joseph looked in his usual health and was sitting up in bed.
It had been ten years since Joseph had left his Uncle Charles’ home in Churchgate, Leicester.
On that cold December evening of 1879 the young seventeen year old Joseph Merrick had taken the mile-long walk up to the Leicester Union Workhouse; six years had passed since he had written to Sam Torr, the proprietor of the Gaiety Theatre on the corner of Leicester’s Gladstone Street to suggest he exhibit himself, a decision which changed his life forever.
In those ten years, Joseph had travelled the country, moved to London and met Tom Norman. He had visited the continent, met royalty, sat and watched a Christmas Pantomime at a West End Theatre and spent holidays in the county of Northamptonshire, but now Joseph was twenty seven years old and his health was drastically failing.
The ward maid brought Joseph his lunch at 1.30pm and left him to eat his meal at his leisure. Josephs daily routine was becoming increasingly difficult, the attacks of bronchitis were recurrent and his heart significantly weaker. The growth in his mouth which had been removed at the Leicester Infirmary had begun to spread once more. He found it essential to rest and preserve his strength making it his routine to stay in bed until the middle of the day.
Joseph was visited as usual later on that afternoon at 3 o’clock by Dr Sidney Hodges. As he arrived on Joseph’s doorstep to make his customary visit
and walked into his room, Dr Hodges instantly knew something was amiss, as Joseph was lying across his bed, his lunch sitting precisely where the ward maid had left it, untouched.
He realised instantly that Joseph was not breathing and that there was nothing he could do, Hodges didn’t touch the body but instead called at once for a more senior colleague, Dr Evelyn Ashe.
Upon Ashe's arrival , the pair jointly examined Joseph. The doctors concluded that Joseph had died of asphyxiation owing to the weight of his head pressing upon his windpipe. As Joseph was found stretched out across his bed, it indicated that he was awake and trying to get up when he suffered some catastrophic physical event, and subsequently fell backwards.
The news soon filtered into the media and around the country.
Just one day after Joseph’s death the story was picked up in his hometown of Leicester, as the Leicester Daily Mercury reported:
DEATH OF THE “ELEPHANT MAN” The “Elephant Man” who obtained considerable notoriety about four years ago, was on Friday found dead in his bed at the London Hospital. The unfortunate creature was terribly afflicted, apparently with some form of leprosy or elephantiasis, and was shown about the country till his sad case attracted the attention of the authorities of the London Hospital, and they offered him asylum within their walls. The man was provided with a small room of his own, and was sent on holiday to an out of the way cottage on Dartmoor. The man was apparently quite well on Friday morning, and the exact cause of death is not yet known. His name was Joseph Merrick and it is understood he was a native of Leicester. He was exhibited more than once at the fair.
It's impossible to know whether Joseph’s father, Joseph Rockley Merrick, or any other members of his family read the story in the papers, but with a daily circulation of over 10,000 it is more than probable that one of them did.
However, it was his Uncle Charles Barnabus Merrick, upon notification from the Coroner’s Office, who made the journey from Leicester to London to formally identify his nephews body.
Four days after Joseph’s passing, on Tuesday, 15 April 1890 an inquest was held into his death at the London Hospital. Coroner Wynne Baxter heard evidence and the following morning the Leicester Daily Mercury carried a full report headed “Death of the Elephant Man, the Inquest”.
On exactly the same day as the inquest, the House Committee of the London Hospital used its usual Tuesday meeting to discuss Joseph’s death and ask the question of what should be done with his body. It was agreed that the skeleton should be set up in the institutes museum after the funeral service had been held in the chapel, and the body handed over to Dr Treves, who was the licensed anatomist of the establishment. Therefore, following the funeral service Joseph’s remains were conveyed to the Hospital Medical College.
Joseph’s bones were bleached twice and re-articulated for private display.
Treves had the challenging task of dissecting and anatomising Joseph’s body. He oversaw the taking of plaster casts of the head and extremities, and the preservation of skin samples. Regrettably the skin samples were abandoned during the Second World War when staff in the hospital were evacuated to Cambridge and the jars containing them dried out. Due to bomb damage in the area, dry rot set in and spread through the fixtures and fittings in the building and the decay affected the specimens. As a result, all the samples were burnt as renovations began. Also during the War the pre-1907 London Hospital documents, including Joseph Merrick’s postmortem report, had been removed to a safe place underground due to the risk of bombing. However, this secret location consequently took a direct hit during the Blitz and was destroyed.
The remains of Joseph's body which were not preserved for medical purposes where given a Christian burial in the consecrated ground at the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium. Although Joseph was originally laid to rest in an unmarked grave, the location was discovered in 2019 and a brass plaque now marks the spot.
Among those who took a personal interest in the news were:
Lady Louisa Knightley of Fawsley Park, who wrote in her journal:
I see in today’s paper that poor Merrick, the ‘Elephant Man’, is dead, passed quickly away in his sleep. It is a merciful way of going out of what to him has been a very sad world, though he has received a great deal of kindness in it. Thank God–he was not unprepared. Now! He is safe and at rest.
Dame Madge Kendal, another of Joseph’s great benefactors, wrote in her autobiography that:
My husband and I always considered it a great privilege to be allowed to soothe his suffering.
In 1923, Sir Frederick Treves published a book entitled The Elephant Man and other Reminiscences. The first chapter gives a detailed account of Joseph's life at the London Hospital and his existence before arriving on the doorstep in 1886. This version of Joseph's life has been the foundation for books, plays and a film.
There isn't much left of Joseph Carey Merrick. There is a small museum at the back of the London Hospital which houses a replica of Joseph's skeleton, the cardboard model of Mainz Cathedral and his famous cap and veil. Josephs one and only surviving letter is now back at the Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland Records Office.
So in the words of Tom Norman:
"One who is probably the most remarkable human being to ever draw the breath of life"
Authors own collection/postcard
Image Christian Jaud
Joseph Carey Merrick
5 August 1862 - 11 April 1890
A room with a view.
Josephs doorway and window (bricked up)