The Long-Lost Remains Of "The Elephant Man" Might Have Been Discovered

Joseph Merrick (1862-1890). This photograph was first published in The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity by Ashley Montagu. Public Domain

After nearly 130 years, the remains of Joseph Merrick – better known as “The Elephant Man” – have been found, an author has claimed.

Merrick’s skeleton has been stored at the Royal London Hospital ever since his death in 1890. However, the location of his soft tissue was never officially logged.

Author Jo Vigor-Mungovin now says that the mystery has been laid to rest. While carrying out research for her biography about Merrick, she claims to have discovered that the remains of Merrick's soft tissues were buried in an unmarked grave at the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium in the London Borough of Newham near Epping Forest.

Strangely enough, the discovery is linked to another famous figure of gloomy Victorian London: Jack the Ripper. Vigor-Mungovin noted that many of Jack the Ripper’s victims were killed in Whitechapel in 1888, the same district of London where Merrick died just two years later. This led her to the records of the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium, where two of the Ripper’s victims, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Ann Nichols, were laid to rest.

One unmarked grave, in particular, seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

"The burial is dated 24 April 1890, and Joseph died on 11 April,” Vigor-Mungovin told BBC News.

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"It gives his residence as London Hospital, his age as 28 – Joseph was actually 27 but his date of birth was often given wrong – and the coroner as Wynne Baxter, who we know conducted Joseph's inquest," she added. 

"Everything fits, it is too much to be a coincidence."

Merrick was born in Leicester in 1862. Following a seemingly healthy first few years of life, he started to develop unusual symptoms. The rest of his life became defined by his condition, characterized by large abnormal growths across much of his skin and bone, especially on his head and right arm. Merrick was confined to a workhouse at age 17, before joining a “freak show” that toured across Europe as part of a circus.

While on exhibition, he was eventually spotted by a London physician, Frederick Treves, who brought him back to the London Hospital. Here, he was thoroughly examined by Treves and became a medical curiosity. He died on April 11, 1890, aged 27, after becoming asphyxiated by the weight of his own head, apparently after trying to lie down.

Merrick's story still continues to fascinate people to this day. He has been the subject of numerous books, plays, and films, most notably the 1980 film The Elephant Man directed by David Lynch, in which he is brilliantly depicted by the late John Hurt.

Even after a century of biomedical progress, it still uncertain what caused his condition. In 1986, two scientists argued it was caused by Proteus syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that was identified in 1979. Others have since suggested that he suffered from a combination of Proteus syndrome and neurofibromatosis, a genetic condition that causes tumors to grow on nerve tissue. However, all genetic tests on Merrick’s remains have proved inconclusive.

An illustration of Joseph Carey Merrick. Wellcome Collection. CC BY

 

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