Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture

By Nadja Durbach | Go to book overview

ONE
Monstrosity, Masculinity,
and Medicine
Reexamining “the Elephant Man”

IN FEBRUARY OF 1923 TOM NORMAN, one of the best known showmen of his day, wrote to the showmen’s trade journal World’s Fair. He was responding to an article about the surgeon Frederick Treves’s recently published memoir, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences, which the weekly claimed “tells a true story [of a freak] that surely has never been equalled in any tragedy or romance ever written as fiction.”1 Norman, who had served as one of four business managers for Joseph Merrick, “the Elephant Man,” during the brief period that he had exhibited himself in England, sought “to point out some mistakes” in Treves’s account, which he suggested World’s Fair had uncritically reproduced. Norman objected to Treves’s condemnation of the institution of the freak show and his assumption that Merrick had been mistreated by his exhibitors, claiming that “the big majority of showmen are in the habit of treating their novelties as human beings, and in a large number of cases as one of their own, and not like beasts.” Indeed, Norman declared, as far as “his comfort was concerned while with us, no parent could have studied their own child more than any of all the four of us studied Joseph Meyrick’s [sic].”2

Tom Norman’s account of “the Elephant Man”—which appears not only in his letter to World’s Fair but also in the showman’s own memoirs—contrasts sharply with that of Treves. Treves positioned Merrick as an abandoned,

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