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.. ........... .....Work created by Kelly Colleen McMahon  

The Elephant Man
~ presented at The Mütter Museum - Philadelphia, PA

Images of the Museum Exhibits, curated and with text by Dramaturg, Ariel Trocino

At the height of their popularity in 1847, the English social satire journal Punch proclaimed the lucrative and ubiquitous “Freak Shows” to have inspired the populous into a fever of “Deformito-Mania”. Freak Shows, or the displays of individuals with highly unique skills or exceedingly rare deformities, filled the English area of Piccadilly.

A few brief years later when John/Joseph Merrick was working as a one man Freak Show in 1884, the tide of public opinion had turned such displays for money were thought to be degrading and distasteful. However in the early to mid 19th century, Freak Shows were sources of great and easily accessible entertainment.

Freak Shows followed a standard format. Early in the rise of their popularity Freak Shows consisted of a few individuals with birth defects or disfiguring diseases standing in a line. Soon simply existing was not enough and the performers developed their own routines, often involving magic, slight-of-hand, strip-teases or elaborate costumes.

We have pictured here some of the most famous performers of the 19th and early 20th centuries and the advertisements used to promote Freak Shows/Side Shows.  

Associated with the American PT Barum was “General Tom Thumb” (real name: Charles Stratton), who never grew taller than two feet.

Also pictured: Zip and Schlitzie “Pinheads” (microcephalics), Jo-Jo The Dog-Faced Boy (extreme Hypertrichosis) and Mademoiselle Gabrielle, who was born without legs.

The Mütter Museum’s collection includes a cast of the torso of Chang and Eng Bunker, who, like Joseph Merrick, capitalized on the interested in physical deformity by exhibiting themselves.

excerpt from the Museum’s exhibit:

Plaster cast made from the bodies of Chang and Eng Bunker, after their
autopsy was performed in the Mütter Museum in 1874.

A commission of doctors from Philadelphia went to Mt. Airy and got
permission from the families to make an examination of the twins so as to determine the exact nature of the anatomic connection and settle the
question of whether or not they could have been separated during life.

The doctors were allowed to transport the bodies to The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, where the actual autopsy was done in The Mütter Museum. Portions of the peritoneal cavities of each twin protruded partly into the band, and their livers were joined by a thin strip of liver tissue. 

The full skeleton of Joseph Merrick, and a close up of his skull.

In 2003, the producers of a BBC documentary about Joseph Merrick followed a team of scientists as they tested his DNA to better understand the cause of his deformities. As part of their work, they created a computer model that hypothesized what Joseph would have looked like had he not been afflicted.

The true condition of Merrick will never be known and post-mortem diagnoses have varied over time. The current assumption is that Merrick was afflicted with the genetic disorder called Proteus Syndrome.

The symptoms of Proteus Syndrome include: overgrowth, asymmetry, and gigantism of the limbs, increased size of an organ, or the body, or bones (hypertrophy), raised rough Skin (verrucous epidermal naevi), deep lines and overgrowth of soft tissue on the soles of the feet (cerebriform connective tissue nevus), patches of overgrown blood or lymphatic vessels (vascular malformations), and local overgrowth of fat (lipomas) or undergrowth of fat. Various tumors are more common in patients with Proteus syndrome, but most are benign.

Currently there are 120 documented cases of Proteus Syndrome, including our contemporary Mandy Sellars, shown right.