When Joseph Merrick died at age 27, his body didn’t go into the ground in one piece. Instead, the bones of the so-called “Elephant Man” were bleached and put on display at Queen Mary University of London’s medical school, and some of his flesh was saved for medical study. Yet for over a century, no one knew where the rest of him was buried, or even if those remains were buried at all.
Now, a biographer of Merrick says she has found his plot. Joanne Vigor-Mungovin, author of Joseph: The Life, Times, and Places of the Elephant Man, had a hunch Merrick might be in the same cemetery as Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols and Catherine “Kate” Eddowes, two of the women Jack the Ripper killed. Merrick lived in the same Whitechapel neighborhood as Polly and Kate, and died just a couple of years after them. Vigor-Mungovin started going through records for the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium, and discovered that Merrick was indeed buried there with them.
“It was what we call a common grave,” Vigor-Mungovin says of Merrick’s plot, which she visited in early May 2019. “There are people below Joseph and probably people above Joseph, so he’s not on his own. And because it’s a common grave, it is usual practice not to have a headstone or for it to be marked."
The discovery confirms that Merrick, who was very religious, was buried the way he would have wanted—with a Christian ceremony in consecrated ground. Vigor-Mungovin says many people, including herself, have petitioned Queen Mary University of London to give up ownership of his bones and bury them in a Christian ceremony. Now that she’s found his grave, Vigor-Mungovin says it’s enough for her to know that he received the burial he would’ve wanted at the end of his short life.
Merrick was born in Leicester, England on August 5, 1862. Accounts tell us he was a kind, sensitive and intelligent man. He could write, and enjoyed reading Jane Austen novels and the Bible. Around age five, his parents began noticing unusual growth in his skin and bones.
In adulthood, the circumference of his right wrist was one foot, and the circumference of his head was three feet. Merrick also suffered heart problems, had difficulty walking and slept sitting up so he wouldn’t suffocate himself. Doctors today still aren’t sure what medical condition Merrick had, since there are no other documented cases like his (there’s some speculation he had Proteus syndrome).
At age 17, Merrick began work in a brutal workhouse with little food and poor medical facilities, especially for a person with his unique needs. “One of the jobs the workhouse people used to do was called bone crushing, which is where they’d crush bone for fertilizer,” Vigor-Mungovin says. Because the food there was so bad, “it wasn’t unknown for the workers and inmates to eat the putrid remains of the flesh off of these dead bones. So that’s how bad it could get.”
Just before his 22nd birthday, Merrick left the workhouse to become an attraction in a traveling “freak show.” “I think Joseph knew that his appearance drew interest,” she says. Likely, he realized “he could probably earn a lot more money and a better standard of living if he went out and exhibited himself.” Merrick traveled with different shows for a couple of years, but his health deteriorated. After being robbed in continental Europe while traveling with a freak show, he returned to Britain and was admitted to London Hospital.
He ended up living out the rest of his life in London Hospital under the care of surgeon Frederick Treves, and passed away on April 11, 1890. Merrick was found leaning over, and the official cause of death was listed as asphyxia caused by his unique condition. But Vigor-Mungovin says we can’t be sure of the exact circumstances of his death. For example, he may have fallen over from a stroke or a blood clot.
There wasn't much public interest in Merrick’s story immediately after his death, says Vigor-Mungovin. It was only later in the 1970s and ‘80s, when stage and film adaptations of his life appeared, that people started to become interested in him. Now that Vigor-Mungovin has found his grave, she has one more idea for a way the public could remember him.
“All I want is Joseph to have a little memorial plaque so people can go remember him, and lay a flower if they want to,” she says. “That’s what Joseph deserves.”