Freaks, Geeks and Gawkers: Joseph Merrick and the History of the Sideshowby Beth Carswell
“'Tis true, my form is something odd but blaming me, is blaming God.”
– line from a poem by Isaac Watts, which Joseph Merrick, “The Elephant Man”, included in a pamphlet about himself.
There is a German word – schadenfreude – which refers to the very specific emotion of enjoyment derived from the misfortune of others. People have been profiting from it for a very long time.
Gawking at the unusual is not a new concept – the practice of human curiosity exhibitions began centuries ago and was far-reaching, with sideshow performers or "freaks" being a key attraction in shows around the globe. Perhaps the most famous freak of all, Joseph Merrick (1862-1890) was a 19th-century Englishman. Today he is known by two other names – John Merrick (due to a misunderstanding early in his relationship with surgeon Frederick Treves), and The Elephant Man (his sideshow name). Merrick lived to be just 27 years old, and those years were as brutish as they were short. He appeared normal and healthy at birth, but began to develop serious physical deformities early. The first signs came in the form of thick, lumpy and grey-hued skin. His parents apparently believed the condition to be the result of a circus elephant frightening Merrick’s mother by knocking her to the ground during her pregnancy. Merrick himself stated in his brief autobiography (a pamphlet about himself he wrote to be sold to gawkers and audiences who came to see him) that he believed this incident to be the cause of his malformations, which included oversized tumors, severe distortion, and swelling of much of his right side, including his right hand.
Merrick's mother died when he was a child, and Merrick was rejected by his father and stepmother, after his physical limitations rendered him unable to work. He made several attempts at door-to-door salesmanship, and working at his father’s haberdashery, but his appearance meant that customers reacted with fear, revulsion, pity or a mixture of therein – never reaching for their wallets. As well, his affliction brought him much pain and little dexterity. Defeated, Merrick went to work and live at the Leicester Union Workhouse, a bleak, prison-like setting for “invalids and imbeciles” and people unable to support themselves, where he found meager food and shelter, and clumsily did whatever menial labor his misshapen hand could manage. Despite being comparatively well-read and educated, Merrick was unable to speak or write clearly. The medical community at the time was ill-equipped and baffled – Merrick was thought to have elephantiasis, a tropical disease. More modern medical minds made speculations of neurofibromatosis, but the most common contemporary diagnosis, after thorough research by specialists, is of the extremely rare disease of Proteus Syndrome, which to date has been confirmed in little more than 200 cases worldwide.
By 1884, when Merrick contacted a travelling showman named Sam Torr, freak shows were already beginning to fade in demand, having hit the height of their popularity earlier in the century. Freak shows, designed as zoo-like exhibitions and displays of biological and natural abnormalities, had been a popular distraction for the masses, both with travelling circuses and carnivals, and at the penny gaff. The penny gaff consisted of a display of curiosities, a short play or skit, often accompanied by music. Famous stories were reenacted, pieces were performed with song and dance, and verifiable accuracy never got in the way of a good performance. They were largely looked upon with fear and disdain by the upper classes, who would never deign to attend, and believed no other respectable person would, either. Merrick, at the height of his desperation, agreed to be exhibited. Some accounts state that Merrick was both well-treated and well-compensated for his participation, while others tell a story of degradation and exploitation. As with similar scenarios, there are arguments on both sides – those who broadly paint all human sideshows as grotesque, exploitative and cruel, and those who argue that the freaks made more money, a better living and more solid relationships in the confines of the circuses than would ever have been possible for them otherwise, and were well-treated and there by choice.
While the extent and development of Merrick’s deformities may have been extraordinary, his place in the circus sideshows was not. Some of the participants who performed at the penny gaff or traveled with circuses and carnivals displayed abilities and skills – there were sword-swallowers and snake-handlers, trapeze artists, clowns and acrobats, people who could lift tremendous weights, human cannonballs, and more. But many of the so-called “exhibits” were, much like Merrick himself, merely people with the unfortunate luck of congenital abnormalities, unusual appearances, deformities or diseases, put on display for the entertainment of the public. Among the most famous were Grady Franklin Stiles Jr. (also known as The Lobster Boy), Minnie Woolsey (The Bird Girl), Harry Earles (a member of the Doll family – four dwarf siblings), Schlitze Surtees (Schlitzie the Pinhead), Lady Olga Roderick (the Bearded Lady), General Tom Thumb (the most famous midget), Tai Djin (Kung Fu Werewolf) and countless others.
A 1932 American film called Freaks from director and screenwriter Tod Browning brought the circumstances of circus freaks into the spotlight, and was met with both compassion and revulsion as well as a healthy dose of cheering. The film was remarkable because Browning made the risky and unusual decision to cast the parts of the freaks as real sideshow performers with physical anomalies, rather than creating the parts with makeup or effects. Browning himself had traveled with a circus in his early life, and much of the film, which is highly sympathetic to the sideshow performers, and less so to the so-called “normal people” and audience, was based on his own experiences.
The cruelty, degradation and arguable exploitation surrounding the notion of circus freaks is much less common, contemporarily, but circus sideshows are still occasionally alive and well. Now, the freaks are typically performers who have made active decisions to become their character – exhibits include human wonders such as heavily pierced and tattooed people, those with unusual flexibility, and those who are able (and willing!) to perform unusual feats such as walking on glass or eating pieces of airplane fuselage. Other human spectacle performers include those who have had themselves extensively surgically altered (to resemble cats, lizards, Barbie dolls and more), and those who complete elaborate stunts and tricks.
As for Joseph Merrick, his life ended as tragically as it began – he was asphyxiated by the weight of his own skull when lying down at just 27 years of age. But there was some happiness before his death. While being exhibited as The Elephant Man, Merrick befriended a surgeon, Dr. Frederick Treves, who arranged for Merrick to live at the London Hospital. Treves devoted much time to communication with Merrick (who had enormous difficulty speaking) and his care and quality of life. During this time, Merrick was well cared for, wrote poetry, travelled some, and even became acquainted with Princess Alexandra and Queen Victoria. It was in the London Hospital that he died in 1890.
More About Merrick
Further Reading: Fanciful Freaks of Fact and Fiction
The Circus Book: 1870-1950
by Dominique Jando
Tom Thumb: The Remarkable True Story of a Man in Miniature
by George Sullivan
Secrets of the Sideshows
by Joe Nickell
by Francine Homberger
by Katherine Dunn
Sideshow U.S.A.: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination
by Rachel Adams
The Worlds Most Fantastic Freaks
by Mike Parker
Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture
by Nadja Durbach
Shocked and Amazed: On & Off the Midway
by James Taylor
Freaks, Geeks, and Strange Girls
by Teddy Varndell
Jay's Journal of Anomalies
by Ricky Jay
Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit
by Robert Bogdan
Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body
by Rosemarie Garland Thomson
The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top
by Janet M. Davis
American Freakshow: The Terrible Tale of Sloth Boy
by Steve Niles