The Victorian Freak Show and the Spectacle of the Elephant Man

by Maria Rovito

The life of Joseph Carey Merrick prevails as a spectacle for the public: decades after his death in 1890, his life is portrayed and performed for audiences all around the Western world, from the 1980 film The Elephant Man by David Lynch to the 2017 stage performance by Tom Wright. Although his body and condition remain curiosities for medical professionals and spectators alike, the lived experiences of Merrick, along with other performers during the Victorian era, exist as cultural histories of the lives of disabled individuals, a reminder of the spectacle of “monstrous bodies” that exist within these histories. Physical disability continues to be a spectacle for able-bodied individuals: the act of staring imposes society’s cultural and bodily norms on disabled persons, and these acts create and enforce boundaries and distinctions such as normal/abnormal, freakish/usual, and deformed/beautiful as the Victorian public experienced this sensation of breaking down the self and Other when viewing these monstrous bodies. Not only were these “freaks” a spectacle and amusement for the public, doctors and medical professionals used these disabled individuals for their own curiosity, often using them as case studies to be examined and experimented on. The life and tale of Joseph Merrick reflects this Victorian tendency to display and view the disabled body as a spectacle as well as the impulse of his doctor, Frederick Treves, to use him as a personal case study in his medical practice. Merrick and Treves’ relationship, however, became more than simply that of doctor and patient as Merrick became not only a case to be examined, but a human with emotions and thoughts that only desired to be “normal.”

The Victorian drive toward industrialization helped to create the binary between normal, functional bodies and disabled, “broken” persons as the body was viewed more as a piece of machinery rather than a natural being.

Punch; or, the London Charivari coined the term “Deformito-Mania” in September 1847, using the phrase to classify the growing curiosity of carnivals and freak performances during the 19th century. This new phenomenon that Punch described featured an illustration of these exhibitions, displaying a crowded hall bursting at the doors, with signs such as “This is The Ne Plus Ultra of Hideousness, Acknowledged Such by The Press!!,” “Hall of Ugliness,” “The Greatest Deformity in The World Within,” and “By Far The Ugliest Biped is Here, One Shilling” (see figure 1). Interestingly, the cartoon depicts the Victorian public as smaller than the signs advertising the freak performers, suggesting that “Deformito-Mania” was, perhaps, a larger-than-life sensation. The tribal statues, which stand parallel to the “Hall of Ugliness” sign, suggest a showcase of freak from perhaps the New World or an exotic location, demonstrating the freak show’s ties to displaying people of color as monstrous bodies. The Egyptian Hall is bursting at its doors, displaying a hand which points to one of the entrances, indicating that the freak show was a popular, rising trend that needed attention from working-class individuals. Punch describes this attraction, along with this illustration:

The taste for the Monstrous seems, at last, to have reached its climax. The walls of the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly are placarded from top to bottom with bills announcing the exhibition of some frightful object within, and the building itself will soon be known as the Hall of Ugliness. We cannot understand the cause of the now prevailing taste for deformity, which seems to grow by what it feeds upon. (90)

Figure 1 - Punch's "Deformito-Mania."
Figure 1 – Punch’s “Deformito-Mania.”

This “mania” for hideousness that Punch describes is seen in the Egyptian Hall at Piccadilly, a new site among various other permanent exhibitions for deformity, often competing for the Victorian public to view the most deformed and horrific “freak” on display. Punch compares the monstrous quality of these freaks to the graceful virtue of beauty:

If Beauty and the Beast should be brought into competition in London, at the present day, Beauty would stand no chance against the Beast in the race for popularity. We understand that an exhibition consisting of the most frightful objects in nature is about to be formed at the Egyptian Hall, under the now taking title of the Hideorama…There seems to be a sort of fascination in the horrible; and we can only hope, as the mania has now reached its extreme, a healthy admiration for the “true and the beautiful,” as the novelists call it, will immediately begin to show itself. (90)

This “healthy admiration” for the beautiful further stigmatizes the binary between deformed/delicate as well as normal/abnormal, as Lillian Craton states, “the odd body is merely an object, deprived of will” (2). The rise of “Deformito-Mania” demonstrated the objectification of freak performers and correlated with the growing middle class in Victorian England as “the rapid growth of the middle class and the gradual institutionalization of the Saturday half-holiday meant that more people had time and money for leisure activities. This led to a demand for inexpensive entertainments and spurred the rise of music halls, theatres, circuses, seaside resorts, aquariums, zoos, pleasure gardens, and popular museums” (Durbach). The growing demand for entertainment through freakery is also seen in its growth in the English language, as the Oxford English Dictionary also categorizes the emergence of the term “freak of nature” in 1847, which defines the phrase as “an abnormally developed individual of any species…a living curiosity exhibited in a show” (“freak of nature,” n4b). This need to classify humans was a hallmark of the Victorian era: “Displays of ‘human oddities’ of all varieties were thus part of the colonial project of collecting, classifying, exhibiting, and hierarchically ordering both the natural world in general, and humankind in particular” (Durbach). The freak show was another method in which scientists and medical professionals could distinguish between a “normal” human and the “abnormal” freak as the physically different freak was put on display as a spectacle similar to that of a caged animal.

Freakery existed in a setting of Victorian industrialization and scientific classification, prevailing as a symptom of the condition of England. This rise of freakdom reached a cultural climax in the 1840s as freak shows in England grew out of industrialization: “[T]he body under industrialization began to seem more like an extension of the machine. . . . Efficiency, a concept rooted in the mechanical, ascended to prominence as a measurement of bodily value” (Garland-Thomson “Introduction: From Wonder to Error–A Genealogy of Freak Discourse in Modernity” 11). The Victorian drive toward industrialization helped to create the binary between normal, functional bodies and disabled, “broken” persons as the body was viewed more as a piece of machinery rather than a natural being. The rise of statistical analysis was applied to health and bodies and the idea of the “normal” man also became prominent during the 19th century, which also contributed to this curiosity toward freaks and monstrous bodies. As Lennard Davis states,

The word “normal” as “constituting, conforming to, not deviating or different from, the common type or standard, regular, usual” only enters the English language around 1840…Likewise, the word “norm,” in the modern sense, has only been in use since around 1855, and “normality” and “normalcy” appeared in 1849 and 1857, respectively. If the lexicographical information is relevant, it is possible to date the coming into consciousness in English of an idea of “the norm” over the period 1840–1860. (3)

Although these renderings of Merrick as an animal or monster depict him as a savage or brute, I suggest that he was unfairly portrayed to be ferocious and grotesque, when in fact, he suggests in his writings, as well as Treves’ recollections of their friendship, that he simply wanted to escape his condition and his infamy as the Elephant Man.

This classification of the body as machine, as well as the introduction of statistics into medical and scientific discourse, transformed how the body was viewed in the mid-19th century. As these discourses focused increasingly on the concept of the “normal” body, doctors and medical professionals viewed these “freaks of nature” as problems that either needed fixing or conditions that needed diagnosis.

Correlated to the tendency by medical professionals to diagnose and fetishize the disabled body, these freak performances displayed and reinforced the boundaries between healthy, able bodies and deformed, unusual bodies. The freak show also existed as a basis for normative ideology and literary imagery: “[T]he iconography of the Victorian freak show is an important image-base for the nineteenth-century imagination of normative ideology and social ideals” (Craton 4). Freakery existed as a representation of class, racial, sexual, heteronormative, and ableistic boundaries for the Victorian population, which is reflected in many instances of literature of the period, such as the growing and shrinking Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the dwarflike Miss Mowcher in Charles Dicken’s David Copperfield, and the overweight Elisabeth Rousset in Guy de Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif.” Dickens describes this sense of boundary during the Greenwich Fair in 1839:

The dwarfs are also great objects of curiosity, and as a dwarf, a giantess, a living skeleton, a wild Indian, “a young lady of singular beauty, with perfectly white hair and pink eyes,” and two or three other natural curiosities, are usually exhibited together for the small charge of a penny, they attract very numerous audiences…Shut up in this case, the unfortunate little object is brought out to delight the throng by holding a facetious dialogue with the proprietor: in the course of which, the dwarf (who is always particularly drunk) pledges himself to sing a comic song inside, and pays various complements to the ladies, which induce then to “come for’erd” with great alacrity. (136-37)

Garland-Thomson coins the term “freak discourse” to analyze the cultural impact of freak shows on the Western public, as well as examine the cultural representations of these performances in modern-day settings. This freak imagery “function[s] as magnets to which culture secures its anxieties, questions, and needs at any given moment. Like the bodies of females and slaves, the monstrous body exists…to be exploited for someone else’s purpose” (Garland-Thomson “Introduction” 2). As demonstrated in the life of Merrick, freak show masters often exploited their performers, both physically and economically, in order to gain profits from their display of the abnormal body. Juxtaposed with this concept of exploitation, however, is the reality for many monstrous bodies of the Victorian period: performing in freak shows was, perhaps, the only means of economic freedom for these physically different individuals as they could not work in traditional manufacturing or farming roles during this period. Stuck between the poor house and the freak show, many physically disabled individuals chose to work as freaks in order to gain some form of economic independence, despite the exploitative nature of the shows and fairs in which they worked.

Victorian Reactions to Freak Shows: Staring, Voyeurism, and Visual Narrative

Victorian freak shows elicited a number of responses from viewers, ranging from stares and knee-jerk reactions to emotions like horror, disgust, pity, and humor. However, the freak show existed as more than a cheap thrill to spectators. The body of the freak performer carried a cultural history that distinguished between the dominant self and the Other. Rebecca Stern builds upon Michel Foucault’s idea of freak imagery as a hierarchy of cultural power: “the exhibition could be mobilized as a disciplinary medium that taught its audience to Other the bodies on display” and, therefore, “was a form of public entertainment with the potential to be a powerful ideological tool” to enforce Victorian class racial, able-bodied, sexual, and gender hegemony (210). Medical professionals during the later Victorian period would attempt to classify and diagnose these monstrous bodies in a clinical, empirical manner; however, this attempt at classification often bordered on fetishization of difference. This highlighting of difference is also contrasted with audience identification, which greatly influences both Garland-Thomson’s notion of recognition and erasure of the self and Other through the act of staring.

Audience identification in the freak show arises from the simple act of staring at the deformed body, an act that was an encouraged response for the Victorian public. This physical act of gawking at monstrous bodies is what Mike Erwin calls the “car wreck phenomenon” (Garland-Thomson Staring: How We Look 3). The act of staring works as a revealing element for disabled bodies as staring works essentially as an act of communication:

An encounter between a starer and a staree sets in motion an interpersonal relationship, however momentary, that has consequences. This intense visual engagement creates a circuit of communication and meaning-making. Staring bespeaks involvement, and being stared at demands a response. A staring encounter is a dynamic struggle—starers inquire, starees lock eyes or flee, and starers advance or retreat; one moves forward and the other moves back. (Garland-Thomson Staring 3-4)

The act of staring exists as a break from setting and reality – the disruption of everyday life by a different body is marked by the act of gazing upon that which is physically different, and this disruption might be welcomed or rejected by the starer. The Victorian freak show existed as this disruption from the day-to-day struggles and hardships of industrial life, where starers could interact with monstrous bodies in order to challenge and disrupt their mundane, daily hardships that seemed almost inescapable. The carnival created an escape from reality, as seen in Dickens’ description of the Greenwich Fair: “If the Parks be ‘the lungs of London,’ we wonder what Greenwich Fair is–a periodical breaking out, we suppose, a sort of spring-rash: a three-days fever, which cools the blood for six months afterwards, and at the expiration of which London is restored to its old habits of plodding industry” (129). The freak show worked as a welcomed disruption from the hardships of Victorian life, one that almost all classes of individuals could participate in.

This escape from reality is reflected in the act of staring as the starer often breaks from the monotony of everyday life when staring at a physically different individual. An exchange of staring creates a defiance of social expectations between the starer and the staree, one that disrupts the able-bodied expectations of physical deformity and disability. This physical encounter with the disabled body makes the starer rethink their notions of the Other, a disruption of the everyday life out of which complacency arises. As Garland-Thomson states,

Triggered by the sight of someone who seems unlike us, staring can begin an exploratory expedition into ourselves and outward into new worlds. Because we come to expect one another to have certain kinds of bodies and behaviors, stares flare up when we glimpse people who look or act in ways that contradict our expectations. Seeing startlingly stare-able people challenges our assumptions by interrupting complacent visual business-as-usual. Staring offers an occasion to rethink the status quo. Who we are can shift into focus by staring at who we think we are not. (Staring 6)

The starer may engage with the staree in an attempt to classify the object before their eyes, but they might also reject this object by looking away. At the center of this relationship, however, is a desire to socially control the Other (the staree) and reinforce dominant ideology by dismantling the binary of self and Other: “The blurring of boundaries between thing and person enables the ideological appropriation of the human form, both for amusement and for use by dominant ideology” (Craton 6). The starer feels a desire to control and colonize that which is unusual:

We want surprise, but perhaps even more we want to tame that pleasurable astonishment, to domesticate the strange sight into something so common as to be unnoticeable…what humans really want is predictability in what we grudgingly know to be an unpredictable world. Ironically, at the root of our craving for novelty is an anxious drive to be rid of it so that we can sink into a calmer world where nothing startles or demands our visual attention. (Garland-Thomson Staring 19)

Figure 2-"La Belle Hottentot"
Figure 2-“La Belle Hottentot”

This sense of novelty excites us, as new information creates a feeling of uncertainty about the world and ourselves, and this awareness of novelty creates a desire to analyze ourselves and our surroundings. The attempt to control that which is unusual is reflected in the impulse of Victorian doctors to classify the monstrous body in a medical setting, therefore taming that which we classify as the Other.

A break from reality, rethinking the Other, and social control were all means by which the freak show operated, attempting to tame and classify the odd body through both cultural and medical frames of reference. Garland-Thomson’s theories, as applied to the freak show, were not only seen in the spectacle of the Elephant Man, but also that of Sarah Baartman, or the “Hottentot Venus.” Symblomatic of the colonial, gender, and racial hegemony within Victorian England, Baartman’s body was used as a representation of the desire by able-bodied, white individuals to gawk at and fetishize, as seen in a 19th century depiction of her (see figure 2). In this print, white Europeans are staring at and fetishizing her body, not only representing the attempt to socially control her body, but also to reframe how the Other is viewed and displayed, as well as representing a break from mundane reality.

The Life of Joseph Merrick: The “Great Freak of Nature”

Merrick existed as not only a visual spectacle to those who viewed him on Whitechapel Road, but also a reminder of the humanity of the disabled body.

Merrick was born a relatively healthy child, with no outward physical deformity or disability as an infant. As he grew older, lumps formed on his arms, face, and back, and as a child he fell on his left hip, which left him permanently disabled and unable to walk correctly. Merrick believed his deformity to be a result of his mother being frightened by an elephant during her pregnancy (“The Autobiography of Joseph Carey Merrick” 173), a case of the now discredited theory of maternal impressions. After the death of his mother, Merrick lived a life of “misery,” often drifting between working at factories and living on the street; he worked at a cigar manufacturing plant for two years but had to leave due to the growing deformity on his right hand, which left him unable to work. His step-mother and father were often quite cruel to him:

I was sent about the town to see if I could procure work, but being lame and deformed no one would employ me; when I went home for my meals, my step-mother used to say I had not been to seek for work. I was taunted and sneered at so that I would not go home for my meals, and used to stay in the streets with an hungry belly rather than return for anything to eat, what few half-meals I did have, I was taunted with the remark — ‘That’s more than you have earned.’ (Merrick 174)

Unable to be employed and receiving constant attention from the public during his outings, Merrick entered the Leicester Union Workhouse on December 29, 1879; he was segregated into the group of adult men aged between sixteen and sixty, with “the broken workmen, the drunkards and dissolute, the inadequate and handicapped, the crippled and retarded” (Howell and Ford 55). After four years of living in the Leicester Union Workhouse, Merrick contacted comedian and entertainer Sam Torr and suggested that he be displayed as an exhibit. Merrick began his career as a freak performer in 1884 with the title “The Terrible Elephant Man,” who was “Half-a-Man and Half-an-Elephant” (Howell and Ford 63). Later that same year, Merrick would be taken over by a freak performance manager named Tom Norman, who displayed Merrick across the street from the London Hospital on Whitechapel Road.

Norman knew that in order to present Merrick to the public, he had to tell a story about the “Elephant Man”: “But you could indeed exhibit anything in those days. Yes, anything from a needle to an anchor, a flea to an elephant, a bloater, you could exhibit as a whale. It was not the show, it was the tale that you told” (qtd. in Howell and Ford 67). A successful freak manager knew how to display the deformed body as a cultural story rather than merely a sight to behold. Norman’s concept of the freak show as a cultural history is reflected in Garland-Thomson’s freak discourse, as the physically disabled body represents cultural anxieties regarding the distinctions between the self and the Other. The concept of putting “anything” on display as a freak contributed to the regulation and explanation of monstrous bodies as these displays were “fundamental to the narratives by which we make sense of ourselves and our world” (Garland-Thomson “Introduction” 1).

Figure 3- 19th century advertisement for "The Elephant Man"
Figure 3- 19th century advertisement for “The Elephant Man”

Merrick contributed to this cultural history of freakery by writing his short autobiography, in which he states that “In making my first appearance before the public, who have treated me well — in fact I may say I am as comfortable now as I was uncomfortable before. I must now bid my kind readers adieu” (174). Merrick’s autobiography, which was posted with him in his display, creates a literary history of deformity, as his life “transformed from a suffering individual to an exhibit” (Graham 2). This exhibit of the Elephant Man was based on an animalistic rendering of Merrick’s body, displaying his features as “half-man and half-elephant.” As Treves writes,

The whole front of the shop…was hidden by a hanging sheet of canvas on which was the announcement that the Elephant Man was to be seen within and that the price of admission was twopence. Painted on the canvas in primitive colours was a life-size portrait of the Elephant Man. This very crude production depicted a frightful creature that could only have been possible in a nightmare. It was the figure of a man with the characteristics of an elephant. The transfiguration was not far advanced. There was still more of the man than of the beast. (“The Elephant Man” 181, see figure 3)

Producing imagery of Merrick as “animalistic” contributes to the separation between self and Other by strengthening the tendency of objectification of the monstrous body. Freak imagery, such as the portrayal of Merrick as “half man, half-elephant,” supported the spectacle of the freak as an object to be observed within a habitat, much like creatures at a zoo or fair. This physical separation between the normal starer and the bodily different staree reinforced the distinction of the freak as a being that needed saving, either by medical treatment or religious salvation.

Although these renderings of Merrick as an animal or monster depict him as a savage or brute, I suggest that he was unfairly portrayed to be ferocious and grotesque, when in fact, he suggests in his writings, as well as Treves’ recollections of their friendship, that he simply wanted to escape his condition and his infamy as the Elephant Man. Modern depictions of Merrick’s life also convey a more humanistic interpretation of his life, translating his monstrous body as more than simply a cheap thrill for the Victorian public. Due to the body in which he lived, he could not escape the gaze of the spectator–which, according to Garland-Thomson, was a constant communication between the starer and himself.

The reaction of staring was not new to Merrick even when it came from medical doctors who wanted to examine him as a case study. Treves presented Merrick at the Pathological Society of London, where members of the fields of medicine and biology could interact and present research findings with each other. The meetings were also presented in the British Medical Journal–the presentation of Merrick appeared in the Journal as:

Congenital Deformity — MR TREVES showed a man who presented an extraordinary appearance, owing to a series of deformities: some congenital exostoses of the skull; extensive papillomatous growths and large pendulous masses in connection with the skin; great enlargement of the right upper limb, involving all the bones. From the massive distortion of the head, and the extensive areas covered by papillomatous growth, the patient had been called ‘the elephant-man.’ (qtd. in Howell and Ford 27)

Using Merrick as a case to be analyzed and interpreted, the Pathological Society of London wanted to examine and dissect Merrick due to his disability–he existed as a manifestation of his deformities, and it can be argued that Treves used Merrick as a means of clout in the Society, which Lynch’s 1980 film depiction of Merrick’s life suggests. In his memoir, Treves states that he wanted to use Merrick’s case in his classroom: “As at the time of my discovery of the Elephant Man I was the Lecturer on Anatomy at the Medical College opposite, I was anxious to examine him in detail and to prepare an account of his abnormalities” (“The Elephant Man” 183). Treves’ inspection of Merrick demonstrates the medical desire to classify and examine the freak body, as demonstrated in the discourse of the mid to late-19th century surrounding normalcy and the empirically “normal” body. This inspection of the freak body by medical discourse furthered the distinction between the abled body and the physically deformed body, establishing the freak as a medical case that needed to be “solved” by doctors and scientists.

Many of the literary productions of Merrick’s life portray Treves as his savior, rescuing him from the harsh conditions of freak life that he was subjected to. When he sees Merrick for the first time, Treves reacts in a manner typical of Garland-Thomson’s starer:

The showman — speaking as if to a dog — called out harshly: ‘Stand up!’ The thing arose slowly and let the blanket that covered its head and back fall to the ground. There stood revealed the most disgusting specimen of humanity that I have ever seen. In the course of my profession I had come upon lamentable deformities of the face due to injury or disease, as well as mutilations and contortions of the body depending upon like causes; but at no time had I met with such a degraded or perverted version of a human being as this lone figure displayed. (“The Elephant Man” 182, emphasis mine)

The reaction of staring was not new to Merrick even when it came from medical doctors who wanted to examine him as a case study.

Treves’ physical reaction to Merrick, that of disgust and horror, is typical when analyzed through Garland-Thomson’s notion of staring as this manifestation of physical response establishes the binary of the self and Other through disgust and horror. Merrick was used to these violent reactions, as seen when a nurse at the London Hospital enters his room without warning: “As she entered the room she saw on the bed, propped up by white pillows, a monstrous figure as hideous as an Indian idol. She at once dropped the tray she was carrying and fled, with a shriek, through the door. Merrick was too weak to notice much, but the experience, I am afraid, was not new to him” (Treves “The Elephant Man” 191). These violent reactions, as Garland-Thomson argues, represent the distinguishing of self and Other by encountering that which is strange and unusual. Merrick witnessed the act of staring constantly, as well as the violent, knee-jerk reactions that the abled public experienced when coming into contact with him.

It is suggested in Treves’ memoir, however, that his relationship with Merrick went further than simply doctor and patient. Despite the tendency by disability studies scholars to deconstruct the “savior” narrative by stating that disabled individuals do not need able-bodied doctors to cure them, it can be argued that Treves’ relationship with Merrick was representative of this narrative. Treves displayed Merrick to the Pathological Society of London to demonstrate Merrick as a case to be examined; however, there is nothing to suggest that Treves tried to “cure” or “fix” Merrick, as many medical professionals attempt with disabled individuals. Not only did Treves suggest that Merrick’s deformity was “in no way allied to elephantiasis” (“The Elephant Man, Amplified from An Account Published in the BMJ” 179), but he also served as a friend to Merrick until the end of his life, often documenting his emotions and thoughts. Treves implies that all Merrick wanted in life was to be “normal,” to be rid of his deformities and be hidden away in the world. Merrick even suggested so in his signatures on letters:

‘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. (qtd. in Treves “BMJ” 180).

As suggested in his signature, Merrick wanted to be known by the measurement of his soul and mind rather than his bodily defects. Those who were to blame him for his bodily difference would be “blaming God,” and therefore, Merrick conveys that his deformity was part of a divine plan, rather than a random genetic mutation. This signature by Merrick further suggests a humanistic rendering of his life, rather than being viewed as animalistic or monstrous as the Victorian public would have viewed him. Treves proposes in his memoir that Merrick wanted to live in either a blind asylum or a lighthouse, as these abodes would hide him away from the stares he constantly received:

Another trouble was his dread of his fellow-men, his fear of people’s eyes, the dread of always being stared at, the lash of the cruel mutterings of the crowd…It therefore seemed to him as if the gaze of the world followed him still. Influenced by these two obsessions he became, during his first few weeks at the hospital, curiously uneasy. At last, with much hesitation, he said to me one day: ‘When I am next moved can I go to a blind asylum or to a lighthouse?’ He had read about blind asylums in the newspapers and was attracted by the thought of being among people who could not see. The lighthouse had another charm. It meant seclusion from the curious…Then he would forget that he had once been the Elephant Man. (“The Elephant Man” 190)

Blindness acts as a curious concept for Merrick as he wanted to live around those who could not physically engage in the act of staring at him. Intriguingly, Merrick wanted to seek out those who were also physically different as a method of living comfortably without being mocked or ridiculed by the able-bodied public who could view him clearly. It meant, for Merrick, living his life in spaces of privacy, where he wouldn’t be ridiculed or belittled due to his deformity. In this sense, and despite the savior narrative that infiltrates the lives of disabled individuals, Merrick appreciated Treves’ work, as Treves provided a space for him in the London Hospital where he could live the remainder of his days peacefully. As Graham suggests,

Imprisoned in a body being continuously and grotesquely remade through a process he could neither understand nor control, Merrick faced what every human being who grows old or falls ill must endure: the sense of exclusion from the world of the healthy and normal, the dilemma of whether to accept a blighted body as an attribute of essential identity or to reject it as a misleading mask, the sufferer’s painful questions about cause and effect, about personal guilt or cosmic cruelty. His bodily condition, then, was extraordinary in degree, not in kind. (3)

Even in death, Merrick wanted to live a life of normalcy–as Treves states, Merrick died from asphyxiation from lying down on his bed, the weight of his head dislocating his neck. Treves suggests that Merrick wanted to “lie down to sleep ‘like other people’. . . his death was due to the desire that had dominated his life — the pathetic but hopeless desire to be ‘like other people’” (“The Elephant Man” 199). After being historicized as one of the most unique freaks of Victorian England, Merrick could not escape his deformity; presently, his skeleton is on private display at the London Hospital as he still exists in the contemporary world as a medical spectacle to be observed.


The life of Joseph Merrick demonstrates the unique reality of the Victorian freak performer, not only representing Punch’s “Deformito-Mania” that the British public experienced, but also the tendencies by medical doctors and scientists to classify and dissect the abnormal body, which was driven by scientific and mathematical discourse of the mid to late-19th century. Merrick existed as not only a visual spectacle to those who viewed him on Whitechapel Road, but also a reminder of the humanity of the disabled body. The freak show existed as a space where the Victorian middle class could project their anxieties onto the freak as the act of staring at these deformed bodies, as Garland-Thomson suggests, furthers the divide between the self and Other, abled and disabled, normal and nonhuman, and animal and man. As a visual and literary narrative, Merrick’s story existed as the epitome of the monstrous body, a body which marked his place in disability history.

Works Cited

Craton, Lillian. The Victorian Freak Show: The Significance of Disability and Physical Differences in 19th-century Fiction. Cambria Press, 2009.

Davis, Lennard J. “Constructing Normalcy: The Bell Curve, the Novel, and the Invention of the Disabled Body in the Nineteenth Century.” The Disability Studies Reader, edited by Lennard J. Davis, 2nd ed., Routledge, 2006, pp. 3–16.

“The Deformito-Mania.” Punch, or the London Charivari, 1847, p. 90.

Dickens, Charles. “Greenwich Fair.” Sketches by Boz: Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907, pp. 129–138.

Durbach, Nadja. “On the Emergence of the Freak Show in Britain.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation, and Nineteenth-Century History, Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, Sept. 2011,

Ford, Peter and Michael Howell. The True History of the Elephant Man: The Definitive Account of the Tragic and Extraordinary Life of Joseph Carey Merrick. Skyhorse Publishing, 2010.

“Freak of Nature.” Oxford English Dictionary Online, Accessed 24 September 2018.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “Introduction: From Wonder to Error–A Genealogy of Freak Discourse in Modernity.” Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, edited by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, NYU Press, 1996, pp. 1–19.

—–. Staring: How We Look. Oxford University Press, 2009. EBSCOhost.

Graham, Peter. Articulating the Elephant Man: Joseph Merrick and His Interpreters. Johns Hopkins UP, 1992.

Merrick, Joseph Carey. “The Autobiography of Joseph Carey Merrick.” The True History of the Elephant Man: The Definitive Account of the Tragic and Extraordinary Life of Joseph Carey Merrick, by Michael Howell and Peter Ford, Skyhorse Publishing, 2010, pp. 173–175.

Stern, Rebecca. “Our Bear Women, Ourselves: Affiliating with Julia Pastrana.” Victorian Freaks. Ed. Marlene Tromp. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008. 200–234. Print.

Treves, Frederick. “The Elephant Man.” The True History of the Elephant Man: The Definitive Account of the Tragic and Extraordinary Life of Joseph Carey Merrick, by Michael Howell and Peter Ford, Skyhorse Publishing, 2010, pp. 181-200.

—–. “The Elephant Man, Amplified from An Account Published in the British Medical Journal.” The True History of the Elephant Man: The Definitive Account of the Tragic and Extraordinary Life of Joseph Carey Merrick, by Michael Howell and Peter Ford, Skyhorse Publishing, 2010, pp. 176-180.

Maria Rovito is a graduate student in the Master of Arts in English program.