This week I have been researching freakshows, sideshows and onstage performance in the nineteenth century. I have read a fascinating article by Nadja Durbach that investigates John Merrick’s life.(1) It specifically looks at the relationship between freakshows and science/medicine. Although I initially did not consider that there was a relationship between the pair, by the end of the article I was gunning for blood and revenge that this poor individual endured. Durbach explicitly engages with the testements and memoirs of Frederick Treves (the doctor who gave Merrick a home at the London Hospital) and Tom Norman (the manager of Merrick and his own sideshow). Before reading this, I have never heard of Norman, but then again my John Merrick history largely came from the 1980s film The Elephant Man.
The first striking thing was how John was described by Treves. Considering Treves was meant to care for John he described him as, ‘a degraded’, ‘perverted’, ‘repulsive thing’, ‘the most disgusting specimen of humanity that I have ever seen’. (pg. 196). This, from the doctor who claimed to help and support John, even claiming to be a fatherly figure to him. Although he gave John a permanent home in the hospital, there was an ulterior motive, that being the commidification of John’s body once at the hospital. Essentially, Treves owned John allowing him to have an ‘access all areas’ pass. Nonetheless, I was sceptical about the idea of a ‘freakshow’ – I think it was because it conjured up images of American Horror Story: Freakshow and all the things that happened there …
However, Durbach makes a strong argument of highlighing this individuals chose to exhibit themselves, it was a choice albeit an upsetting and demoralising one in today’s society.
Photographs, ‘carte de viste’, were considered desirable and collectible in the freakshow sphere, they were also commissioned and distributed by Treves. In this image, John was dressed in his Sunday best and posed in a professional studio. He was pictured on a three-quarter profile with his deformity most visible. If, indeed the camera was on the opposite side, the photograph would not have been so striking and John’s left side would have been displayed, which was considerably less deformed.
Science and medicine in the nineteenth century was going through huge technological and research advancements, particularly in the spheres of disease, gynaecology and pregnancy. Norman suggested the reason for John’s deformity was due to ‘maternal impression’. He claimed that John’s mother was at the circus whilst pregnant and was scared by an elephant, therefore, the elephant was imprinted on her unborn child. Although this sounds like something from Twilight, it was a genuine thought and concern at the time. Likewise, his physical appearance emulated an elephant complete with overgrown and excessive limbs as well as a ‘trunk’ like appendage over his nose and mouth. Therefore, we can see the superstition of the entertainment world coming together with medical concerns in this example of maternal impression.
However, Durbach does explore how the, ‘freakshow resisted the medicalisation of monstrosity’ (pg. 201). The term ‘monster’ was not one to be used within shows and did not describe exhbitits, instead it was the public and medical experts that used this term to describe individuals who did not fit the ideal. Norman for instance recalled how he encouraged the crowd to see John as, ‘the most remarkable human being ever to draw the breath of life’ rather than him being a monstrosity. (pg. 201).
The most interesting section of this article for me is, ‘Labour, Class and the Masculine Body’ section. John was hospitalised in 1886 and died in 1890. Prior to this John worked for five years in Leister Workhouse and after secured a position as a novelty act, touring in Britain and Europe in a troupe. John was a working-class man and active in his position. Yet, Treves prohibited him doing this, he claimed that John could not work because he was not an ‘able-bodied’ individual. Now, if he successfully worked in the workhouse for five years and got himself out of there (which was very uncommon), surely he was successful at supporting himself?
Masculinity in the nineteenth century was practiced via the ability to support your family, have a regular income and be a good example of a man. By not providing, you were not exhibtiing your masculinity, it could therefore be questioned. John had provided for himself in the past, saving at least £50 in five months according to Norman’s testement. By Treves admitting him into hospital he took away his independence, masculinity and made him be reliable on charity. A charity he was not used to living out of the hospital and performing.
Essentially, the freakshow allowed the individual to be seen as a person, a man who was making a living. Treves, therefore emasculated John and infantilised him by not allowing him the freedom of movement beyond the hospital walls. Although, after John was taken advantage of in Belgium, Treves did offer John his room at the hospital when he was destitute. But, at what cost? John was essentially the property of Treves and was answerable to him.
The nineteenth century male body was supposed to be god-like, like an Adonis. It needed to be handsome, muscular, clean, strong with the man being intelligent and being a practicing and committed Christian (Muscular Christianity). John did not have these attributes. He was kind, caring, and sympathetic. Treves described John as feminine, ‘despite his deforities and troubles, he was a ‘gentle affectionate and loveable creature, as amiable and as happy as a woman’. (pg. 204). Inevitably, these are not manly or masculine qualities, again highlighting how John’s masculinity was questioned.
Another surprising discovery was John’s death. He was found dead in his bed at 3:30 in the afternoon on his back. He knew that if he did lay horizontally then his neck would break and he would die of asphyxiation. Treves recalled that he died from his, ‘pathetic but hopeless desire to be ‘like other people”.
John’s body was stripped of flesh and internal organs before them being buried in an unmarked grave. His skeleton was boiled and preserved and being cast and is held at London Medical College’s Pathological Museum.
John was not given dignity in his death and was still exhibited as a thing, a body and a commodity. The skeleton is publicly off limits and further explores his concern of never being treated as other people.
(1) Durbach, N. ‘Monstrosity, Masculinity and Medicine’, Cultural and Social History, 4:2, (2007), pp. 193-213.