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picture of the Elephant Man

"I am not an animal": The secret cricketing life of the Elephant Man

John Merrick's biographers portray him as a victim of Victorian prejudice but was that really the case? New research paints a different picture: a canny all-rounder and the founder of modern umpiring. PDCC investigates the strange case of the Elephant Man.

The short life of John Merrick - better known as The Elephant Man - has been well documented in modern times; first through books then David Lynch's award winning film before finally influencing contemporary pop music.

In 1988 Michael Jackson tried to buy Merrick's skeleton in order to build the world's most expensive xylophone for his record breaking Bad tour.

Jackson also harboured hopes that Merrick's DNA could be used to bring him back to life so that they could perform Ebony and Ivory together.

Merrick has mainly been portrayed as a victim of Victorian intolerance and ignorance - a gentle man thrust into a nightmare world of freak shows and random cruelty just because his body did not conform to society's norms.

The truth is rather different. Merrick was a vain man whose stint amongst the circuses and fairs of Europe brought him fame and wealth. In later life he gleefully rubbed shoulders with the gentrified classes and developed a taste for fine art, champagne and expensive buns.

picture of the Horse Man
The Elephant Man's brother - The Horse Man - enjoyed a long career in pantomime but his later life was blighted by alcoholism.

What is also usually ignored is Merrick's sporting prowess. He enjoyed a cricketing career that led him to become one of the most celebrated all-rounders of the age.

He played first class cricket for The Gentleman Wanderers, umpired to minor county level and became a member of the MCC.

John Merrick first developed a love of cricket whist touring the country as an exhibit in Christopher Hogg's travelling freak show: Ye Olde Hogg Curiosity Shoppe.

Hogg would get his exhibits to take part in short cricket matches for the watching public: midgets vs bearded ladies, cretins vs contortionists; and the public's favourite: the horrendously disfigured vs the chronically obese.

The public were both fascinated and repulsed by these contests and their popularity helped spread the appeal of cricket throughout the country; although many early fans were disappointed when England's then test captain - Lord Harris - turned out not to have 3 legs.

Life on the road was hard and Merrick grew to enjoy these matches as a release from the daily grind. As his confidence grew so did his ability and by 1885 Hogg had agreed to accept 5 guineas from cricket impresario Horace Pooter as compensation for Merrick joining his fledgling team - The Gentlemen Wanderers, whose ranks included the legendary W.G. Grace.

picture of the 1876 Costcutter Cup final at Harrow
The Happy Wanderers batting against the Pederasts of Kent in the 1876 Costcutter Cup final at Harrow.

However the young Merrick's early cricketing career was marked by controversy. He developed an unreadable 'mystery ball' which he bowled by flicking the ball down the wicket from his trunk. It was quickly outlawed as being against the spirit of the game.

Previous accounts of Merrick's discovery by the medical profession all suggest that Whitechapel Hospital surgeon Dr. Frederick Treves was the man behind Merrick's rescue. In fact he was first noticed by W.G. Grace in a Gentlemen Wanderers vs Players match in 1886 in which they found themselves at the crease together.

Merrick was a handy lower order batsman but a notoriously poor runner - matters weren't helped by his insistence on batting in a hessian cowl topped off with a large cap. During their third wicket partnership Merrick's calling and running aggravated Grace to the extent that after a particularly close call the angry doctor ripped off Merrick's headwear thus exposing his grotesque deformities to gasps of horror amongst the unsuspecting players and spectators.

A startled but still furious Grace remonstrated with a cowering Merrick and told him in no uncertain terms that he was running like an 'ass'.

It prompted Merrick to retort: ¨I am not an animal. I am a human being ... there was an easy two there."

picture of Merrick's only surviving letter
Merrick's only surviving letter: he wrote to celebrated actress Lily Malone asking her if she would like to 'stroke his trunk'.

Grace's medical training led him to recognise the uniqueness of Merrick's condition. Although cricket took up most of his time Grace still harboured a desire to be taken seriously by the medical fraternity and he saw an opportunity to improve his status by exhibiting Merrick at the next meeting of the Lancet Society.

On the day in question Grace stood in front of the assembled throng of doctors, surgeons and psychiatrists and told them of his amazing discovery.

As the lights went down a single spotlight lit the stage and from the shadows John Merrick - the Elephant Man - made his way centre stage.

The audience gasped. Then a stunned silence filled the room.

Within seconds Grace himself was on stage. He had quickly changed into his whites and handed Merrick a cricket bat.

"Look closely gentlemen," said Grace "he might be a hideous freak but his forward defensive is the best outside Yorkshire", at which point Grace delivered a cunningly flighted donkey drop only to have it met with the straightest of straight bats.

In reality the forward defensive was Merrick's least favourite shot. The effort of placing his bulbous head forward over the ball often meant that he toppled over and got stumped - but Grace was keen to show that Merrick's technique was not compromised by his condition.

Merrick much preferred the back foot and could hook and pull as well as any. This was just as well, as the fast bowlers of the day inevitably targeted Merrick's head. When he got hit - as he often did - there would be a scramble amongst close fielders for the flaky deposits that dropped from his scalp. These - known as Jumbo Scratchings - became a much sought after delicacy in the inns and taverns around Lord's.

Shortly after his sensational appearance at the Lancet Merrick found himself the toast of London society. He quickly developed a taste for opera and ballet and was a regular fixture at the most exalted parties. He happily regaled the numerous beautiful women that he met that he was called the Elephant Man only because of the 'size of his trouser trunk' and that his unusual head shape was the result of a misfortunate short leg fielding accident.

picture of Merrick attending the first ever performance by The Chuckle Brothers
High society: Merrick attends the first ever performance by The Chuckle Brothers.

Sir Frederick Treves came to an agreement with Grace that Merrick would move into a room at the Whitechapel Hospital as part of Treves' research into monsters but would be available for net practice and Gentlemen fixtures whenever required.

Sadly, by 1887 Merrick began to struggle on the field and his performances declined sharply.

As the only man with gloves he was required to keep wicket in a crucial match against I Zingari only to disgrace himself by dropping everything and also by constant incomprehensible sledging.

One team mate was reported as telling The Times: "I am sick of hearing about how Mr. Merrick's dear mother could catch everything in her pinny. Tis a shame that he is unable to do the same."

Merrick himself had long been an easy target for sledgers on the field but was well able to stand up for himself.

During a match between The Gentleman and the Yokels of Somerset a batsman called Merrick "a fat Omnibus inspector" before being clean bowled by his slower one two balls later - at which point Merrick pointed at the departing batsman and shouted: "have your omnibus ticket ready for inspection please".

And when batting.

Bowler: Mr. Merrick pray tells us: why is your head so big?

Merrick: Because Sir every time I have relations with your good lady wife she gives me a bun.

Merrick's bowling - mostly gentle inswingers - became blighted by a serious no ball problem. In desperation Merrick confronted Grace about this.

"I have been meaning to ask you. Can you cure me?" to which Grace replied "we can carry you but, no, we can't cure you."

"I thought not" replied Merrick, before trumpeting loudly and trudging back to his mark.

picture of Madam Frindall, The Bearded Wonderwoman
Madam Frindall, The Bearded Wonderwoman scoring at The Oval in 1886.

Further tensions developed when Merrick insisted that Grace give games to two old friends from the freak show days: The Giraffe Man (so called because of his extremely long neck) and The Rocket Man (who was made of expensive lettuce and was later immortalised in song by Elton John).

Merrick's appearances for The Gentlemen brought in record crowds - which pleased the notoriously money hungry Grace - but his sporting pride mean he didn't want to weaken the team even further. He finally relented by allowing Merrick's friend - a bearded lady called Madam Frindall The Bearded Wonderwoman - to play against The Gentlemen of the South, only to regret it when the crowds began shouting: "which one is the Doctor and which one is Madam Frindall?"

It proved the final straw for Dr. Grace. He thought long and hard how he could remove the popular Merrick from the team whilst still retaining him on the field of play.

Then he had an idea. The Elephant Man could become an umpire.

Merrick's years as a freak show exhibit had not been wasted and whilst touring Belgium he had been given a copy of Brown's Companion to Umpiring and Scoring which he had committed to memory.

The transition from player to umpire began smoothly. Merrick accepted his new role with gusto and developed an individual and flamboyant approach to the job - for example: when giving a batsman out Merrick would raise his trunk as well as his finger.

But after his first season in the middle Merrick found new problems to overcome.

He struggled to find a white coat with pockets big enough to hold all of his accessories: his pocket-knife, light metre, his mirror and comb, the framed picture of his mother, the model of Westminster Abbey made out of matchsticks and 12 hot cross buns.

picture of John Merrick's gravestone
John Merrick's gravestone.

In addition, long hot days in the middle played havoc with his skin in the days before sun cream. By September 1889, after a long hot summer, Merrick's head was described in Punch as being "like a giant baked potato" and players complained that the foul smell coming from him was putting them off.

Finally, after Frederick Treves implored him to quit, Merrick decided that enough was enough and retired to the sanctity of the Long Room.

However, Merrick struggled to comply with MCC regulation - he regularly undid his top button and often upset other members by trumpeting loudly during quiet passages of play. A whispering campaign began and in 1890 he was accused of leaving a large mess on the Committee Room floor and was asked to resign.

A broken man, he made his way back to his room at Whitechapel Hospital where, after trying to reverse sweep Treves' wrong 'un, he fell into a coma and died in his sleep. He was just 27.