Saturday, 15 January 2011
The Elephant Man
In Whitechapel Road, London there is a small shop which sells saris. 127 years ago the same shop was used for a very different purpose; to exhibit a man whose body was so terribly disfigured with evil-smelling skin growths he was nicknamed 'The Elephant Man'. His real name was Joseph Carey Merrick and this book is about his life and the people who knew him.
I won't go into masses of detail surrounding Joseph as I am sure most people have heard of him, he is famous even today because of his (mercifully) rare medical condition and the tremendous suffering he went through in a largely uncaring world. His mother died when Joseph was 10 years old and his father re-married shortly after. Joseph's step-mother was cruel and impatient towards him forcing him to leave home and enter the workhouse. Eventually he began working in freak shows, exhibiting himself to the public for money. It was in this capacity that he met Sir Frederick Treves; a young surgeon from the London Hospital. Merrick left London shortly after this and went through all manner of very unpleasant experiences before he finally returned and moved into the London Hospital. Here he was cared for by the doctors and nurses before his death at the young age of 27.
The book is very informative and well put together, it is clear a lot of hard work went into it and I'm glad I had the opportunity to read it.. It was very interesting to read how many myths surround Joseph, one of the biggest being that his first name was John. An interesting fact is that Joseph attributed his frightful condition to his mother being scared by an elephant when she was pregnant with him. I am left with the strong impression that Joseph was a kind and gentle man, popular with those who took the trouble to know him and certainly not a man deserving of what happened to him. I am thankful he was cared for before he died.
The book doesn't claim to know everything and sadly a lot of the details of Joseph's life have been lost over the years. Some very good photographs are included as well as a two page 'autobiography' believed to have been written by Joseph himself. The book also gives detail on the Victorian attitudes to freak shows and gives an insight into the operations of the workhouses of that time period.
Overall rating 4/5