Joseph Merrick held various positions in the world of conventional work before his freak show career began at the age 21. After leaving school aged 12, Joseph worked at a cigar factory in Leicester, hand rolling the product. He was dismissed after two years when the deformities of his right handed “claw” meant that he could no longer fulfil his duties. For his next employ, Joseph Merrick’s father secured him a hawking license and he spent three years eking out a living as perhaps the world’s most unlikely door to door salesman.
Eventually destitute, Joseph Merrick entered Leicester Union Workhouse from where he periodically discharged himself to look for work. After four years of pauperage Joseph Merrick was faced with a choice – endure rejection from normal society for the rest of his life and die in the workhouse, or turn his affliction into a borderline illegal sideshow, save himself and make a living.
By writing to promoters and offering his services, Joseph Merrick became a performing freak of his own free will. Evidence suggests that for the most part of his career, Joseph was treated well by his managers, earned good money and was shrewd with his savings, accumulating a nest egg roughly approximate to a workingman’s annual salary in just a couple of years.
This chapter of Joseph Merrick’s story is often ignored. But for me this is the story, the sequence of events which led to a devout Christian choosing a life of immorality and the evolution of a “freak” act which saved Joseph’s life, led to his admission at the London Hospital and his enduring celebrity.
Joseph Merrick was accustomed to performing for crowds and it is now accepted that he was a more worldly, independent man than previously thought. Were Joseph’s qualities of pious, childlike, innocence an extension of his freakshow persona, which he exaggerated to win favour with his benefactors? My book imagines this possibility.
But what is a “freak”? My personal definition is that: a freak exploits an unusual medical condition or deformity for the purpose of an entertainment career. In this respect both the performing freak and the artist are similar, but different. The artist may exploit their affliction for the work, but their essential quality is artistic talent. The essential quality of the freak is their medical condition. A freak may develop technical ability over time, but it is not essential. Great freaks are rarely great artists but, in my opinion, deserve to be respected as legitimate entertainers.
The fictional Joseph Merrick believes that: “The cripple is the product of accident, whereas the freak is a creature of will and therefore is a suspicious character, for all good Christians know that disability should enrich the soul and not the pocket.”
Therefore Joseph Merrick, paid performer in a sideshow, is a freak. Joseph Merrick hawker, selling on the street, is a worker with an impairment. In performance he has power and any ridicule is a compliment to his act, rather than a detriment to his living. He knows what he is doing and is getting paid. Once we accept that Joseph Merrick chose to exploit himself, we can also consider that he chose to exploit us, the ogling voyeur.
However, we must also acknowledge that the life of someone like Joseph Merrick is not a continual joyful romp, where the raucous party of personal rebellion submerges self doubt. Days of liberation can be darkened by nights of uncertainty, anguish and regret. The character of Dr Gilbert Greystone symbolises many things, the rise of Eugenics, harsh Victorian attitudes towards different people, the ruthless edge of the British Imperial ruling class. He tells Joseph Merrick that: “When I first saw you at the workhouse, I knew our destinies were entwined. For you embody everything of which I would rid the world, the deformed, the defective, the weak, the worthless.”
Gilbert Greystone also represents something we all share – a form of self loathing, our disgust at our weakness and imperfection, the inner voice of chastisement and shame that so frequently visits us at the mirror. Joseph’s most significant relationship is with Alice Powell…
Alice, once a conventionally beautiful young woman, suddenly grows a beard. It is unexpected, unexplained, a personal tragedy. She is hounded by society and cast out by her family. Alice takes to performing as The Bearded Lady where she meets Joseph Merrick. She has been fawned over for her beauty, then derided as an oddity, yet in Joseph Merrick she meets a man seasoned in affliction, who can teach her more of the freakish way. Joseph and Alice find solace and fulfilment in each other, but as their friendship progresses to romantic love, fate intervenes…
Some of us are fortunate to be cured of our afflictions, or find relief in a temporary reprieve. Others are able to conceal their conditions with careful management. Like Alice, we may experience radically different reactions from the same individuals: desire and disdain, adoration and rejection, the true hypocrisy of the world. Some of us enjoy a precarious, temporary position within normal society, knowing that we are vulnerable, should our secret ever be discovered or the affliction return.
The universal message is that we all possess some corner of strangeness we seek to suppress, everyone, no matter how seemingly “normal”, and that by stepping into the bizarre, we can find a form of release.
I thank you in advance for reading my book and Joseph Merrick for his example.
“The Secret Life of The Elephant Man” is a book for the freak in us all.