Emerging from a popular yet affordable form of entertainment in dime museums during the mid-1800s in the United States, freak shows reached the height of their popularity throughout the late 19th to early 20th century.

They were parts (or perhaps the main attractions) of circus performances or other types of traveling exhibitions throughout the country and beyond.

Although popular among spectators, the freak show was often criticized for its nature likely involved instances of exploitation of its performers.

The “show” mostly revolved around the exhibition of human oddities or congenitally unusual anatomy, for example, microcephaly, dwarfism, gigantism, and other physical disabilities.

As if the term “freak” was not demeaning enough. Some even consider freak shows a part of pre-WWII American culture.

One of the earliest and most popular performers, “The Elephant-Man,” Joseph Merrick was not an American but an English born in Leicester, United Kingdom.

Out of necessity to earn a living, Merrick became part of a freak show in his early 20s before Dr. Frederick Treves found and arranged accommodation for him at the Royal London Hospital.

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10 /10 Miserable Adolescence

There are some conflicting accounts about the life of Joseph Merrick during his teenage into early adult years. Some sources say Merrick spent much of his life being part of a fairground exhibition as a freak.

Others suggest that Merrick was exhibited in the back of a vacant establishment only for a short period in 1884. However, almost certainly, he had rough miserable adolescence due to his deformity.

He couldn’t keep every employment he had, mainly because he possessed no skill required to perform the work and that people were horrified by his looks.

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9 /10 Extreme Deformity

Joseph Merrick suffered from a condition not fully understood even by modern medical science. His skull featured significant growth of bone on the right side and at the front of the temple.

His right arm also was far more critical than the left, which appeared normal. His right upper leg bone (femur) was thicker and more extensive than the left too. Merrick’s spine was curved, making him hunched.

The curious part was that the abnormal growths only occurred in certain parts of the body.

Diagnoses thus far include Proteus syndrome or a combination of that with neurofibromatosis, but it remains uncertain.

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8 /10 Proteus Syndrome

A lot who study Joseph Merrick’s condition today most likely believe that he suffered from Proteus syndrome. The hypothesis first came to the surface in a 1986 article published by the British Medical Journal.

It is a rare genetic condition in which the cells divide beyond control. Cells have a natural tendency to divide and multiply, but in the case of Joseph Merrick, division and multiplication were at an extreme level.

Some bones grew more significant than the body proportion would require, and so did some soft tissues such as flesh.

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7 /10 Dr. Frederick Treves

It has been 137 years since Dr. Frederick Treves, a doctor at the London Hospital, saw a photo of a strange-looking figure in the window shop near the hospital in Whitechapel.

Under the picture, it said, “Come in and see the Elephant Man. Two pence.” The doctor was curious to see what was being exhibited, but the shopkeeper named Silcock said it was closing time.

Dr. Treves insisted and ended up paying 12 pence. Shocked by what he saw, the doctor asked Silcock whether it could take Merrick to the nearby London Hospital. Merrick and Silcock agreed.

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6 /10 To Belgium And Back

In the hospital, Dr. Treves determined he could not help Merrick. There was nothing the doctor could do, but he gave Merrick his card. Silcock took Merrick back and brought the exhibition to Belgium.

After about a year in the country, the two earned some money, including Merrick’s £50. Later on, Silcock took Merrick’s share and abandoned him in Belgium.

Merrick had to find his way back to London all by himself. He showed the card Dr. Treves had given him to the police in London, who took him back to the hospital.

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5 /10 Give Merrick A Home

It was 1886. Dr. Treves had not seen Merrick for two years when the police brought him to the hospital. The doctor then explained Merrick’s situation to the Hospital Chairman, Francis Carr-Gomm.

The latter then wrote a letter to the editor of The Times newspaper, relaying information provided to him by Dr. Treves.

The letter said that Merrick could not stay at the hospital because he was not “technically” ill, but he needed a place to stay.

Within just a week, a donation from readers reached £50,000 – enough to earn Merrick a business in the hospital for life.

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4 /10 Good Home At Last

After long years of spending his time mostly in a cold, dark, dirty booth owned by Silcock, finally, Merrick was in a place he could call home. The hospital gave him two rooms at the back of the building.

One room had a bed, table, and some chairs, whereas the other was a bathroom so I could take a bath every day.

His skin conditions improved, and so did the smell. Now Merrick was not as sad as he had always been. He could read books and interact with the nurses.

3 /10 Death

On April 11, 1890, Dr. Treves found Joseph Merrick dead in bed. Merrick usually slept sitting up with his arms around his legs and head on the knees.

When the doctor saw him that night, Merrick appeared to be sleeping on his back.

Dr. Treves believed that Merrick was trying to sleep like ordinary people, but the head was exceedingly large that it just sank into the soft pillow, breaking his neck.

The next day, the Hospital Chairman wrote another letter to The Times, informing readers about the death and giving the remaining donation money to the hospital.

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2 /10 Still At The Royal London Hospital

The person known as The Elephant Man died in a hospital bed at the age of 27. After his death, Dr. Treves dissected Merrick’s corpse.

His skeleton is still preserved today as an anatomical specimen in a small museum in the medical school at the Royal London Hospital, the same hospital where Merrick spent the last years of his life, read many books, made friends and was at one time visited by Princess Alexandra.

His skeleton is kept under lock and not generally on public display.

1 /10 Unmarked Grave

While the skeleton is preserved at the hospital, Merrick’s soft tissue was buried in an unmarked grave at the City of London Cemetery.

No one knew where the tomb of Joseph Merrick was until Jo Vigor-Mungovin (author of “Joseph: The Life, Times and Place of the Elephant Man”) claimed to have found the grave in 2019.

According to Vigor-Mungovin, she was confident that the unmarked grave was Merrick’s based on the Victorian records she used for the search.

The story of Joseph Merrick was made into the critically-acclaimed 1980 film “The Elephant Man” starring John Hurt.

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