New Calls to Bury the Bones of 'Elephant Man' Joseph Merrick

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

More than a century after his death in 1890, the skeleton of “Elephant Man” Joseph Merrick sits in a glass cabinet in a private room at Queen Mary University of London, where medical students and select visitors can view it by appointment. But according to BBC News, concerned parties are now calling for Merrick’s bones to be given a proper burial in his hometown of Leicester. They argue that he would have wanted his body be interred with his family instead of being put on display.

Merrick, who lived in a workhouse in Leicester before he became a touring Victorian sideshow attraction, was dubbed the “Elephant Man” thanks to a rare condition that caused him to develop a large, malformed head; a curved spine; growths on his skin, muscles, and bones; and an overgrown right arm and hand. Today, experts believe Merrick may have had Proteus syndrome, a rare genetic condition that causes skin overgrowth and abnormal bone development, or a tumor disorder called neurofibromatosis type 1.

Merrick eventually found a home at the Royal London Hospital, where he’d befriended a surgeon named Frederick Treves. There, Merrick spent the remainder of his days until his death in 1890, at the age of 27. Merrick’s skeleton was then given to Queen Mary University of London, which is part of the Royal London Hospital network.

Over the decades, experts have studied his bones to learn more about Merrick’s mysterious condition. University officials say it was understood that Merrick expected for his remains to be preserved for medical purposes after death. They also say that they regularly check in with his living relatives over their care.

Valerie Howkins, the granddaughter of one of Merrick’s former managers, Tom Norman, disagrees. “There was just no question when he died that he would go back to Leicester to be buried,” she told the BBC. “He was Christian and would have expected a Christian burial.” Plus, Merrick’s bones have been exhaustively studied by now, she points out to the Leicester Mercury.

Members of the Friends of Joseph Carey Merrick, a memorial group that honors the man’s memory, agree with her. They’ve been calling for Merrick’s remains to be buried for years now. “As Joseph Merrick was a devout Christian we know for a fact he would have wanted to be laid to rest,” the group’s founder, Jeanette Sitton, told The Guardian.

However, researchers have said that modern advances in DNA science may allow them to glean new insights from Merrick’s bones. They also point out that they've handled Merrick’s remains in a dignified fashion. They're stored in a private room, and the only people who look at them are medical professionals who must obtain a curator’s permission. (A replica of the skeleton currently sits in the hospital’s museum.)

"Those viewing the skeleton are expected to consider Mr Merrick's feelings and gain experience of the considerable challenges of living with his condition,” the university said in a statement.

Since Merrick’s body is owned by the hospital, the city of Leicester erected a memorial stone for him and other members of his family in the city’s Welford Road cemetery in 2014. They also erected a commemorative plaque at Moat Community College, which sits on the site of the former workhouse where Merrick lived before he became a sideshow act.

[h/t BBC News]