He was an object of curiosity and ridicule throughout his life – studied, prodded and examined by fascinated Victorians, from inquisitive doctors to gawping circus goers.
Joseph Merrick was known as the Elephant Man because of his extreme deformities, including large growths of bone at the front and right of his head.
His right arm and hand was also far bigger than the left, his right femur was bigger and thicker than the left, while his spine was badly curved, causing his whole body to be hunched.
Swelling in his lips created a 8cm ‘trunk’.
Merrick travelled around Europe as a 19th-century freak show attraction before finding solace at the London Hospital, Whitechapel, where he surprised staff by proving to have an intelligent and sensitive personality.
He died on April 11, 1890, asphyxiated by the weight of his own head, apparently after trying to lie down, aged just 27.
While his skeleton is kept under lock and key in a small museum at the same hospital where he died, now the Royal London Hospital, the place where some of his soft tissue was buried has remained a mystery… until now.
Author Jo Vigor-Mungovin, who has written a biography of Merrick, claims she has finally found the burial place, at an unmarked plot in the City of London Cemetery.
It is the same cemetery where two of Jack The Ripper's victims, Mary Ann Nichols and Catherine Eddows, are also buried.
The discovery shows how fascination with the Elephant Man is just as strong today as it was when Merrick was alive.
Here are some of the other stories surrounding the Elephant Man in the 130 years since he died…
His body tissues and organs were destroyed in the Blitz
Doctors would probably have by now been able to diagnose the exact cause of Merrick’s deformities using skin and organ samples which were preserved after his death.
However, they were destroyed by evacuation of staff and a Nazi bomb during the Blitz 60 years later, before science had advanced enough to tell their secrets.
Frederick Treves, the doctor who helped Merrick find a safe place to live at the London Hospital, performed the autopsy on his body after he died.
Knowing that Merrick always slept sitting upright, he came to the conclusion that he must have “made the experiment” and tried to sleep lying down “like other people”.
He ruled the death was accidental and certified cause was asphyxia, after finding that he had died of a dislocated neck.
Believing that scientists in the future would one day be able to better understand the causes of Merrick’s deformities, he dissected Merrick’s body, took plaster casts of his head and limbs, and preserved body tissues and organs in formaldehyde.
But after the Second World War broke, and the London Hospital staff were evacuated to Cambridge, bomb damage caused dry rot, which destroyed the specimens.
Meanwhile, all the London Hospital’s pre-1907 post-mortem reports, including John Merricks, had been removed to a ‘safe’ underground location, which subsequently received a direct hit from a highly explosive bomb.
Losing the samples, as well as detailed post-mortem reports, destroyed any chance of a certain diagnosis of what had caused Merrick to become the most deformed person in history.
DNA tests tried – and failed – to discover his condition
Many doctors who examined Merrick while he was alive determined that he was suffering from neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that causes tumours to develop on a person’s nervous system.
But recent study of his remains has shown that they were wrong, and Merrick’s ailments were not on the nervous system level.
Some have suggested that he was suffering from a rare disease known as Proteus syndrome, which causes extreme overgrowth in the bones, skin and other organs.
It wasn’t until 2003 that scientists were able to successfully extract DNA from Merrick’s century-old hair and bone – but the results did not conclusively prove that he had Proteus syndrome either.
In a Discovery Channel programme some clinical geneticists suggest he may have been cursed by both incredibly rare conditions, probably being the only person in history to have done so.
The reality, though, is that the medical world is still none the wiser as to why Merrick developed such terrible deformities.
Researchers recently found his relatives
In 2002 an international group of experts, still trying to find the cause of his deformities, managed to track down the Elephant Man’s long lost relatives.
Pat Selby, who grandfather was Merrick’s uncle, had no idea of her connection to the famous figure.
Merrick’s great-niece, who was now in her seventies, was still living in his home city, Leicester.
Researchers made contact with her after making an appeal in Leicester to find relatives of Merrick’s mother.
She said: “I’ve quite interested in it now. I get from reading about him he was a very nice man.”
Scientists are now using the latest genetic techniques to study Ms Selby’s own DNA to find out if there is anything in the family genes that could diagnose his condition.
Others who discovered they are relatives, however, refused to take part in the experiment.
Ray Merrick, whose great-grandfather was also an uncle of Joseph Merrick, said he wasn’t interested in finding out what disease he suffered from, adding: “It is enough that he had to go through life like that. It must have been dreadful.”
Michael Jackson tried to buy his bones
A world-famous loner himself, Michael Jackson was reportedly obsessed with the Elephant Man and saw parallels between his own life and that of the Merrick.
The story goes that he watched David Lynch’s 1980 black and white movie “The Elephant Man” 35 times, never once without crying.”
And last year Richard Trembath, a geneticist from the Royal London Hospital, claimed Jackson would come to the hospital and spend hours sitting alone with the skeleton.
Such was his fascination with the story it was reported that he tried to buy the bones for an undisclosed amount from the hospital in 1987.
Jackson’s manager Frank Dileo said at the time: “Jackson has a high degree of respect for the memory of Merrick.
“He has read and studied all material about the Elephant Man, and has visited the hospital in London twice to view Merrick’s remains.
“His fascination with their historical significance increased with each visit, along with hopes to add them to his collection of rare and unusual memorabilia at his California compound.”
His mother was found buried in an unmarked grave
In 2014 a group of Elephant Man enthusiasts discovered the unmarked grave of his mother, Mary Jane Merrick, in a Leicester cemetery.
Her family were unable to afford a headstone when she died in 1873, when her son was 11.
The group unveiled a new memorial headstone on the plot in the Welford Road Cemetery – so they could lay flowers to her on behalf of her son.
Jeanette Sitton, founder of the Friends of Joseph Merrick, said: "This gravestone will finally allow floral tributes to be laid in a cemetery, in his name, on his mother's grave."
He may soon finally be laid to rest
There are increasing calls for Merrick to be buried himself, 130 years after his death.
In 2016, researchers called for Merrick to be given a Christian burial in his home city of Leicester, claiming that, while he agreed to be exhibited during his life, he "almost certainly" did not want his remains to be displayed after he died.
Valerie Howkins, the granddaughter of Tom Norman, one of Mr Merrick's former managers, said the reburial of Richard III in Leicester in 2012 had made her "doubly anxious" for Mr Merrick to be buried with dignity.
She said: “There was just no question when he died that he would go back to Leicester to be buried.
"It's just so sad that he had his flesh stripped from his bones and has been mounted in a glass cabinet for 120 years against his will.
"He was Christian and would have expected a Christian burial."
Jeanette Sitton from the Friends of Joseph Carey Merrick, also wants him to be buried in Leicester.
"As Joseph Merrick was a devout Christian we know for a fact he would have wanted to be laid to rest," she said.
"It's an almost certainty. We know he was a devout Christian and we know he did have a strong faith."
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