Was The Elephant Man Dr Treves’ ‘Private’ Freak?
On the 5th of August 1862, John Merrick, commonly known by his stage name ‘The Elephant Man’, was born in Leicester, England. Merrick suffered from a rare condition, which has not been conclusively identified yet. Some doctors believed his condition to be neurofibromatosis type I, others, Proteus syndrome and it caused severe deformities of Merrick’s body. At the time of his birth nothing indicated his illness. Deformities developed during early childhood, being noted initially at about eighteen months of age, and progressed throughout Merrick’s life. At the age of twenty, a large portion of his facial disfiguration was successfully rectified.
Due to his severe condition, Merrick’s life had never been easy. After the death of his mother, when Merrick was only eleven, he tried to support himself by selling gloves on public streets. But as he grew older, and his deformities worsened, he was no longer able to do it. He then entered the workhouse, where he remained for four years. He hated it though, and in 1884, Merrick decided to make a living by working for a Leicester music hall comedian and proprietor, Sam Torr, as a travelling exhibit in human novelty shows. It is at this point that he adopted his stage name, the Elephant Man. During one of such public exhibitions on Whitechapel Road in London, Merrick was spotted by a London doctor, Frederick Treves, who would later find a permanent home for Merrick in one of the hospital’s wards.
The story of Merrick’s life has been depicted in the 1980 film by David Lynch, The Elephant Man. In the film, Merrick is portrayed as a helpless victim of the freak show managers, and Treves seems to appear as the humane and noble rescuer of the man in question. However, some scholars have questioned this rather romanticised version of Merrick’s life and the function Treves played in it. The film was based mainly on Treves’ version of events; hence, it was bound to a certain degree of bias.
In her book Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture, Nadja Durbach attempts a broader view on Merrick’s life. In it she says: “Treves positioned Merrick as an abandoned, friendless, and exploited misfit who had been exhibited as “an object of loathing.” “He was shunned like a leper,” declared Treves, “housed like a wild beast, and got his only view of the world from a peephole in a showman’s cart.” He had “lived a life that was little better than a dismal slavery,” Treves maintained, until the surgeon himself had rescued Merrick and given him “a home of his own for life” at London Hospital.” Then she sets Treves’ account against that of Merrick’s London manager, Tom Norman: “Norman… challenged Treves’s sensational contention that he had, as Norman sarcastically recounted, “rescued this freak from the clutches of showmen, and was able to bring undreamed of happiness into the life of a hideously deformed creature who would otherwise have perished without ever knowing what happiness meant.” Instead, Norman asserted that Merrick had contacted the showmen on his own initiative, that there had always been a “spirit of friendship” between them, and that he had, in fact, made a tidy profit off his own exhibition. Norman argued that in the end the hospital was much more degrading than the freak show and instead that Merrick’s agency was compromised not at the moment he was compelled to exhibit his deformity for profit, but rather once he became a permanent resident of the London Hospital and relinquished all control over the manner in which his body could be viewed. Norman constructed Merrick not as a helpless victim but as a fellow working man whose choice to perform as a freak enabled him to maintain his independence and in the process, crucially, to assert his own version of working-class masculinity.” (Nadja Durbach, Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture)
Norman’s account gains on validity when learning about Treves’ public presentations concerned with human bodily conditions. According to one of his students Treves was a bit of a showman himself who frequently used, “racy descriptions of the more abstruse parts of the human body. He often had us in fits of laughter, which is more than most teachers of anatomy today manage to do, I fancy” (Durbach). Another shocking fact is that “Treves not only exhibited Merrick’s strange body, but later he also circulated his image as a photographic souvenir. …The photograph depicts Merrick dressed in his “Sunday Best” posing in a traditional Victorian portraiture stance, the three-quarter profile position that accentuated the monstrous aspects of his body. Had the photographer placed Merrick facing the other direction, his “normal” side would have dominated the image and the opposite effect would have been created. This monstrous image of Merrick was made into a carte de visite, a small card-backed photograph. Cartes de visite were extremely popular collectibles beginning in the 1860s; indeed, freaks regularly sold carte de visite portraits of themselves to earn extra money. …This portrait of “the Elephant Man,” which clearly was circulated at least among the hospital population and was perhaps also given to Merrick’s patrons, was thus little different from the souvenirs hawked at fairgrounds and sideshows. It suggests that the hospital itself was complicit in commodifying Merrick’s monstrosity, using techniques borrowed directly from the show world.” (Durbach). It seems then that Merrick became more of a freak within the closed hospital environment, rather than when he was travelling the country as a human exhibit in commercial freak shows.