A Freakish History

For centuries, onlookers have been astounded by the malformations of these distinct individuals, gawking at their obvious differences. Freak shows became popular attractions associated with fairgrounds where freaks would often entertain the crowds with their many talents. Some of these astonishing individuals were quite skilled at dangerous acts such as sword swallowing or flame throwing while others would catch their audience by surprise with deformities like mutated limbs or extra appendages. Even exceptionally tall people were viewed as freaks and labeled as giants.

These extraordinary people joined traveling circuses and fairs to gain employment and possibly a sense of belonging because in earlier times, they weren’t so easily accepted by society. Take Joseph Merrick for example. He was well-known as “The Elephant Man” during the 1800s. He suffered from a severe thickening of the skin that caused huge lumps throughout his entire body and a bony growth on his forehead. Joseph was also inflicted by enlarged feet and an enlarged arm. The cause of his condition was never determined. He tried working as a door-to-door salesman, but because of his deformities, his attempt at such employment proved unsuccessful.

Conjoined twins, John Baptista and Lazarus Colloredo gained their recognition by touring Europe in the early 1600s. Then there was “The Missing Link”, a Burmese girl who’s real name was Krao Farini. She was employed by P.T. Barnum from the late 1800s to the time of her death in the mid-1920s. The reasoning for her stage name was because it referred to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Krao Farini had an excessively hairy body with ape-like qualities.

Many freaks were actually quite financially comfortable back in the day. Popular freaks were even depicted on trading cards, another way that these remarkable people were able to achieve monetary gain.

You can call them freaks, human oddities or whatever you choose, but the fact of the matter is that we are all humans regardless of our appearance.

“I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!” ~ Joseph Merrick, a.k.a. The Elephant Man

“I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!” ~ Joseph Merrick, a.k.a. The Elephant Man

“I…. Am…. A Man!”

Joseph Carey Merrick, a.k.a. “The Elephant Man”.

On August 5,1862, Joseph Carey Merrick (who was often incorrectly referred to as John Merrick) was born in Leicester, England. His parents were Joseph Rockley Merrick and Mary Jane Merrick. During his early years in life, Joseph Carey began to suffer from extreme facial and body deformities. He appeared to have thick and lumpy skin. His lips became rather enlarged, and a bony lump started to grow on his forehead. One arm and both feet also grew to be enlarged and during his childhood he had fallen, damaging his left hip which caused him permanent lameness.

At the age of only eleven years old, Joseph Carey’s mother passed away. The cause of her death was bronchopneumonia. His father remarried not long after. Wrongly, he and his new wife rejected Joseph, treating him like an outcast. Joseph Carey was forced to leave home, finding shelter at the residence of his uncle, Charles Merrick.

At thirteen years old, Joseph gained employment working at Freeman’s Cigar Factory in Leicester. And then, in December 1879, at seventeen years of age, he joined the Leicester Union Workhouse. A few years later in 1884, Joseph got in contact with Sam Torr who was a showman. Joseph suggested that Sam should put Joseph up as an exhibit because of his unusual deformities.

Torr agreed on the proposition and along with a group of men who managed Joseph, they came up with Joseph’s exhibit’s name of “The Elephant Man”. After touring for some time, Joseph made a trip to London to be put on exhibit in a penny gaff located on Whitechapel Road which was rented by Tom Norman who was also a showman. Norman’s shop was located right across the street from the London Hospital.

Frederick Treves, who was a surgeon from the hospital, visited Norman’s shop. Dr. Treves automatically showed interest in Joseph Carey Merrick. The doctor invited Joseph to the hospital to be examined and photographed. This made Joseph feel uncomfortable, like an animal, and he refused to return to the London Hospital. This angered Dr. Treves and oddly enough, Norman’s shop was closed by local authorities. Upset by it all, Joseph decided to seek another opportunity elsewhere and joined a gentleman by the name of Sam Roper who owned a traveling circus that toured throughout Europe.

As time went on, Joseph was unfortunately robbed in Belgium, abandoned in Brussels, and finally made his way back to the London Hospital. Dr. Treves allowed Joseph to stay the remainder of his life at the hospital, free room and board. With daily visits from Dr. Treves, the two men quickly formed a remarkable friendship. Even the wealthy elite, including Alexandra, Princess of Wales visited Joseph.

And then, on April 11, 1890, Joseph Carey Merrick sadly died at the age of twenty-seven years old of asphyxia which is a condition where the body is seriously deprived of oxygen. It was believed that he was awake, attempting to get up from his bed just prior to his death. He was found stretched across his bed with a dislocated neck. Perhaps the weight of his head was too much for his neck to support. His skeletal remains can be found on display in the Royal London Hospital, which is a large educational facility in London, England.

It’s said that one of Joseph Carey Merrick’s favorite poems was:

“Tis true my form is something odd,                                                                               but blaming me is blaming God.                                                                                Could I create myself anew,                                                                                               I would not fail in pleasing you.

If I could reach from pole to pole                                                                                      or grasp the ocean with a span,                                                                                         I would be measured by the soul.                                                                                 The mind’s the standard of the man.”

 

 

 

“I am not an animal! I am a human being! I … am … a man!” ~ Joseph Carey Merrick, a.k.a. “The Elephant Man”.

 

Here is the artwork that I created in honor of Joseph Carey Merrick simply titled, “The Elephant Man”. Prints, pillows, blankets and even stationary…. available only at Fine Art America!

 

(“The Elephant Man” ~ by Sheila Renee Parker. Prints, tote bags, coffee mugs and so much more available only at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-elephant-man-sheila-renee-parker.html!)

 

 

 

 

CSParkerJewelry on Etsy! https://www.etsy.com/shop/CSParkerJewelry  (Handmade Jewelry. Natural Stones. Glass Beads.)

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~ Art by Sheila Renee Parker available at: https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/sheilarenee-parker.html

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