Postcard from London

By John Martin

Whitechapel, the hub of London’s East End, bristles with historical notoriety. It has long been first port of call for impoverished migrants. Traces remain of successive settlements of Jews, Huguenots (French Protestants), Bengalis, and latterly displaced people from Somalia.

Here Jack the Ripper weaved his murderous web, preying on prostitutes who plied their trade in Whitechapel’s back streets. William Booth founded the Salvation Army in Whitechapel to fight the demons of poverty, vice, and alcoholism. In the 1960 the area became the domain of the infamous Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie, gangsters who terrorized the community and extracted protection money from businesses.

Whitechapel is news again. A tug of war has broken out over the mortal remains of Joseph Merrick, better known as the Elephant Man. Merrick was a freak-show exhibit in Victorian England in the late 1800s.

Campaigners say Merrick, who was a devout Anglican, should be accorded a Christian burial and laid to rest in his hometown of Leicester. Authorities at Queen Mary College, where his skeleton is stored, claim Merrick accepted that his remains should be available for scientific study.

From about age 5 Merrick began to suffer from Proteus syndrome, a very rare medical condition that causes bones, skin, and other tissue to expand abnormally. His skin appeared thick and lumpy, he developed enlarged lips, and bony lumps grew on his forehead and the back of his head.

One of his arms and both feet became enlarged and during his childhood he fell and damaged his hip, resulting in permanent lameness. His mother died when he was 11. Merrick left school at 13 and had difficulty finding employment. Rejected by his father and stepmother, he left home. In late 1879, at 17, he entered the Leicester Union Workhouse.

He became prey to showmen and toured the East Midlands. He then traveled to London to be exhibited in Whitechapel in a “penny gaff” (cheap amusements aimed at poorer classes). Frederick Treves, a surgeon from London, visited Merrick there and invited him to be examined and photographed. When police closed the penny gaff, Merrick took to the road again, only to be robbed and abandoned in Brussels.

He eventually made his way back to London. When police found Merrick he was unable to communicate, but they found that he was carrying Treves’s card. Treves took Merrick back to the London Hospital. Although his condition was incurable, the hospital welcomed Merrick as a guest for the remainder of his life. Merrick became something of a celebrity, receiving visits from wealthy Londoners, including the Princess of Wales. Treves visited him daily, and they developed quite a close friendship.

Merrick died on April 11, 1890. The official cause of death was asphyxia, but Treves dissected the body and said he died of a dislocated neck. Treves said Merrick was unable to sleep lying down because of the weight of his head. Treves believed that Merrick died because he tried to recline in his sleep.

A new replica of Merrick’s skeleton went on display at the London’s museum in 2012. The real skeleton is stored at nearby Queen Mary College, which restricts viewings to doctors.

Valerie Howkins, the granddaughter of Tom Norman — one of Merrick’s former managers — said that last year’s burial of Richard III in Leicester had prompted her to call for a dignified burial for Merrick’s remains.

“There was just no question when he died that he would go back to Leicester to be buried,” she told the BBC. “He was Christian and would have expected a Christian burial. It’s not right that his bones should be stuck in a box in a store room.”

Jeanette Sitton, founder of Friends of Joseph Carey Merrick, agrees: “As Joseph Merrick was a devout Christian we know for a fact he would have wanted to be laid to rest.”

“It is understood that Joseph Merrick expected to be preserved after his death, with his remains available for medical education and research,” said an official with Queen Mary College. “As custodians of his remains, the university regularly consults with his descendants over their care.”

The story of Merrick and Treves is commemorated in The Elephant Man, a film by director David Lynch.

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