How Did the Elephant Man John Merrick Really Die?

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I've always had a problem with the explanation for the death Joseph Merrick, aka the Elephant Man, who is often mistakenly called John Merrick. Merrick suffered from an unknown condition, perhaps proteus syndrome, which caused widespread deformity and over-growths on his body.

His head was so large and heavy that he was unable to sleep in a normal lying position. Instead, he had to sit up in bed, draw up his legs. He clasped his arms around his knees and rested his large head on them. This must have been a miserable way to try to sleep and Merrick often wished to be able to sleep like a normal person.

Joseph Merrick aka the Elephant Man, front and side views

Joseph Merrick aka the Elephant Man, front and side views


When Merrick was discovered after his death, he was found lying on his back across his bed. According to the traditional explanation for his death, on April 11, 1890, he attempted to sleep lying down, something he had wished to do for many years. When he lay his head on the pillow, his head snapped back causing it to dislocate, asphyxiating him. It was speculated that he deliberately ended his life.

In this video from Discovery UK, orthopaedic surgeon Alex Vaccaro and Rose Drew try to figure out what actually caused Merrick to die. Veccaro, like myself, questions the traditional account of his death: "…it doesn't make any sense to me that that would occur because he had a well-developed cervical musculature, he was used to his normal movements, and if you lean back and you're falling asleep…and you're cutting off air, most people will suddenly cough…just like you can't drown yourself. All of a sudden you stop breathing…and then you wake up."

What Veccaro is saying is that if Merrick's air was cut off while he slept, he would be suddenly awakened just like any of us would, and he was capable of controlling his head at least to the extent that he would not suffocate himself in this manner.

Joseph Merrick May have Suffered a Stroke

Upon examining the vertebra of Merrick's body, the team found damage to the first two vertebrae just underneath the skull, C1 and C2. Veccaro also noticed that in every single photograph of Merrick during his life, he is always looking to the left. At the time of his death, his head is in a neutral position. In other words, he is looking straight ahead. Somehow, when he lay down, his head was moved to the right side, either forcefully due to the weight and proportions of his skull, or voluntarily. This caused the vertebra to twist to the right and crush the spinal cord while also stretching the vertebral arteries, two major vessels which supply the brain. Once these are stretched to a certain degree, a stroke would occur. Once this happens, according to Veccaro, "you're not waking up from that, because you can't, because you can't move your arms or legs anymore, because now you're paralyzed."

Merrick was only 27 years old when he died. The exact cause of his deformities has remained a mystery. In 1986, it was theorized he had Proteus syndrome, also known as Wiedermann syndrome. This is a very rare genetic disorder that causes tissue overgrowth. DNA tests were performed on his hair in 2003, but the results were inconclusive. His life and death continue to fascinate researchers and his remains are still being studied.

This research is not without controversy. Many believe that Merrick's body should finally be laid to rest and that he should, at long last, be allowed to rest in peace.

Posted on 01 Apr 2018 21:56

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