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Modern Mysteries

Rare 'Elephant Man' letter goes on display

By T.K. Randall
September 10, 2017 · Comment icon 12 comments

The cause of Merrick's deformities still remains unclear. Image Credit: Public Domain
The only surviving letter written by Joseph Merrick was a thank you note sent to widow Leila Maturin.
Born in 1862, Merrick showed no signs of physical deformity for the first few years of his life.

As time passed however, he started to develop abnormal growths across several parts of his body and in particular, his head, which became so riddled with growths that he could barely speak and the immense weight of his skull prevented him from being able to sleep lying down.

His condition and appearance would lead him to become a popular 'curiosity' at shows and exhibitions where he was billed as the 'Elephant Man' and was described as 'half-man, half-elephant'.

It was a difficult life and one that would see him mocked and shunned on a daily basis.

Eventually though, Merrick ended up under the care of doctor Frederick Treves at the London Hospital in Whitechapel where he would go on to spend the remaining years of his life.
During that time, he was visited by Mrs. Leila Maturin - the first woman to ever smile at him or shake his hand. The two later corresponded several times and one of these letters, in which Merrick had thanked Maturin for sending him a grouse and a book, has now gone on display in Leicestershire.

"Dear Miss Maturin," he wrote. "Many thanks indeed for the grouse and the book, you so kindly sent me, the grouse were splendid. I saw Mr Treves on Sunday. He said I was to give his best respects to you. With much gratitude I am Yours Truly, Joseph Merrick, London Hospital, Whitechapel."

Sadly, Merrick died at the age of just 27 on 11 April 1890. An examination revealed that he had died of a dislocated neck due to the immense weight of his head.

Treves had speculated that it had happened when Merrick had "made the experiment" to lie down in bed "like other people", something he had avoided for most of his life due to the risk of injury.

The exact nature of the condition he had been suffering from would go on to become one of the most perplexing and hotly debated medical mysteries of all time.

Source: BBC News | Comments (12)

Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #3 Posted by Stiff 6 years ago
I remember watching the film many years ago and being extremely moved by it. If you've not seen it, I highly recommend it for a sombre nights viewing - it makes you realise just how lucky we are.
Comment icon #4 Posted by Dark_Grey 6 years ago
I remember reading the original book as a young teen. His "handler" would force Joseph to stand on a stool in front of onlookers and make elephant noises. He was fed a single potato at a time. His only transgression in life was being born disfigured...his story is really about the best and worst of humanity. Poor Joseph...
Comment icon #5 Posted by Stiff 6 years ago
I think there's a little controversy over that? It's hard to know which sources to believe though sometimes. "The real Merrick's London showman, Tom Norman, was not a brutal drunk, like the fictional "Bytes". Norman was a well-respected showman and founder of a temperance society. He and Joseph "John" Merrick were friends and business partners. Norman paid all of Merrick's expenses and split their earnings fifty-fifty. In a few weeks, Joseph saved up fifty pounds, as much as a typical working family made in a whole year. Ever since Treves wrote his memoirs with the character of the cruel showm... [More]
Comment icon #6 Posted by Boozemonkey 6 years ago
A sad life and a brave man. I wonder how he would have been treated in this day and age?
Comment icon #7 Posted by Dark_Grey 6 years ago
Fascinating. Its good to know that Joseph wasn't brutalized as badly as some stories allege
Comment icon #8 Posted by Stiff 6 years ago
Agreed.  There's actually a fair few myths brought about by the film and the memoirs, some of which are in here. Maybe not the definitive source for accuracy, I know, but some compelling trivia reading nonetheless 
Comment icon #9 Posted by and then 6 years ago
Reminds me of this unfortunate fellow as well: In both cases, it seems to me that today there could be a 3-D printed replica of the skeletons and the originals could be respectfully laid to rest.
Comment icon #10 Posted by Not Your Huckleberry 6 years ago
I legit cried watching the movie 
Comment icon #11 Posted by Ozfactor 6 years ago
What a lovely lady miss Leila Maturin was , the first lady to ever smile at Joseph Merrick and the first lady to ever shake his hand, bless her and what a treasure of a letter .
Comment icon #12 Posted by LightAngel 6 years ago
Just as bad because the human race is still very ignorant. Just look at the world, look how we often treat each other badly just because of differences! - I still have hope for us, though.

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