Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Colin's Little Known Facts: The Elephant Man

Most people have heard of the Elephant Man. But few realise that he was a real person, and fewer still will know that he was a native of Leicester.

Joseph Merrick was born in Lee Street in Leicester. The slum area where he was born, between Charles Street and Wharf Street, no longer exists, but it was close to the Lee Circle multi-story car park.

The real tragedy of Joseph Merrick was not just his famous deformity, but that nobody showed any understanding of his feelings. The only way he could stay alive was to exhibit himself, and let people stare and point at what they would simply see as a freak.

A theatre where he “performed” was the Empire in Wharf Street. The building, minus its top floor, is still there, although it is now used for sales of car accessories.

There is a sari shop in Whitechapel Road in London which once held “freak shows”, and Joseph was sometimes made to stand here naked in the window, to drum up business. I am able to show this site during my popular Jack the Ripper walk.

Luckily, he was rescued by Frederick Treves, an eminent surgeon from across the road at the London Hospital, and he ended his days there.

Many people will remember the film “The Elephant Man”. It was a very good film, apart from the fact that Joseph Merrick’s name was changed to John Merrick. It is believed that this was done for the American market – apparently the Transatlantic public would find it difficult to cope with a complicated name like Joseph.

John Hurt played the title role, and Frederick Treves was played by Anthony Hopkins.

Joseph Merrick always believed that his deformities were caused by his mother being frightened by an elephant during the fair in Humberstone Gate.