Prof. Vanessa Toulmin on "The Elephant Man"

The second film in the Darwin Correspondence Project’s ‘Darwin and Human Nature’ series, screened at Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, was THE ELEPHANT MAN. The film was introduced by Professor Vanessa Toulmin, director of the National Fairground Archive and head of Cultural Engagement at the University of Sheffield. Toulmin is a leading authority on Victorian entertainment, and has completed extensive research on travelling show-people. Her recent books include ‘Blackpool’s Wintergarden: The Most Magnificent Palace of Amusement In The World’ (2009) and ‘Blackpool Pleasure Beach: More Than Just An Amusement Park’ (2011). Joe De-Vine attended the screening, and transcribed Professor Toulmin’s introduction:

Vanessa Toulmin: […] What I’m going to do is talk about the problems this film faces for historians. Not just 19th century historians, but people who are looking at the way film and history [interact], and also a kind of 15 minute introduction to the main themes of the film, why I as a historian am very kind of obsessed with this film in a way, but also repelled and repulsed by what’s in the film, and not for the reasons that you would think; not for the characterisation.

“The Elephant Man as a show in the 1880’s in Whitechapel, London is actually an anomaly in the history of entertainment at the time…”

So the film is the story of Joseph Merrick, and I say deliberately ‘Joseph Merrick’ because it’s basically based on the reminiscences of the main character in the film. There [are] three characters in this film: one of them is Joseph Merrick (i.e. The Elephant Man); the second one is Sir Frederick Treves (or, as he was at the time, Frederick Treves), a surgeon and doctor working at the London Museum; and the third character, (who is almost shadowy, unnamed and unfocused in a way) is the character of the showman, which is an amalgamation of 3 or 4 different showmen who were responsible for a very small aspect of Joseph Merrick’s career as a freak show oddity, but in many ways the historical dates at which [the film] relates to pinpoints to one particular showman […who] is unnamed in the film, but was one of the most famous showmen of the 19th century. The two issues for me [are]: ‘why was the showman unnamed?’ (the showman [in question] is Tom Norman, real name Thomas Noaks) and ‘why has he been perceived and treated the way [he is] in the film?’.

The three aspects of the film for me [that] are very fascinating [are], first of all, the life of Joseph Merrick. Joseph Merrick is his real name; John Merrick is how he’s described in the film. Frederick Treves wrote a biography called ‘The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences’ (1923) about his life. He became [a very famous surgeon] in the 1900s for performing an [appendectomy] on the king, but he [started his major career as an up-and-coming doctor in the 1880s] largely through his association with the Elephant Man. [Although] the Elephant Man is probably the most famous 19th century freak show to modern audiences (largely because of this film), he was [in the 19th century] unknown, forgotten and really a footnote in the history of exhibition. There [have been] six books written on the Elephant Man since the 1980s: the most famous and authentic being [Michael] Howell and [Peter] Ford’s ‘The True History of the Elephant Man’ (1980), which looks at both sides of the story. The interesting thing about the Elephant Man as a career in 19th century entertainment history [is that] he’s really a footnote, and that’s because his form of entertainment, the Sideshow Curiosity, very much relates back to 18th century entertainment, when freak shows and exhibitions were known as ‘the monster makers’; the relationship between the medical staff, the showman and the exhibition was far less of a professional entertainment industry, and more gawking and looking. The Elephant Man itself as a show in the 1880’s in Whitechapel, London [therefore] is actually an anomaly in the history of entertainment at the time, relating more to something that was 70 or 80 years prior to that, which is also interesting.

“Tom Norman, the showman in the film who’s not named, had an incredible reputation destroyed by Sir Frederick Treves…”

The third character, in many ways, is the one we know [the least] about, which is Merrick himself. We know very little about Merrick’s early career and life. We really know much about Merrick from his own autobiography. We know lots about Merrick because his actual skeleton and skin are kept in the London Museum and were on display until very recently. We know about Merrick because of the type of disease that he had, which is still open to speculation; it’s still not agreed what kind of genetic disorder Merrick had. There must have been 5 documentaries in the last ten years about people trying to trace what particular disease Joseph Merrick had.

Those are the issues [and] I kind of have a more personal issue that Tom Norman, the showman in the film who’s not named, had an incredible reputation destroyed by Sir Frederick Treves when he published his book in the 1920s. So much so that Tom Norman basically wrote a series of letters [that] appeared in the Times and the [World’s Fair] newspaper and then wrote his own account of his life as a showman, called ‘The Silver Dollar King’ which was never published during his lifetime. Tom Norman died in 1930 and his funeral was attended by a thousand showmen from all over the United Kingdom, he really was one of the most fantastically famous [showmen]. In many ways his name lived on in prosperity for many years [after] people had forgotten […] the Elephant Man.

“…the person who [made] the most money out of the Elephant Man was actually the London Museum of Frederick Treves. “

We’ve only 3 photographs of the Elephant Man as a sideshow exhibit, all [of the rest] of the photographs we have of the Elephant Man are medical photography, [coming] again from all of the collections in the London Museum. In terms of the National Fairground collection, we hold the Norman family collection, so we hold the unpublished manuscript of the Norman family. Parts of that were published in the 1980s and the reason why the family published it was because yet again, 60 years after the book had come out, they were faced with the spectre of the Elephant Man damaging the family’s reputation of showmen ([certain branches of the family] had been exhibiting for over 200 years). Tom Norman himself was actually the son of a butcher from Sussex, [running] away to the circus and the fairground when he was 17. He was very early in his career when he came across the Elephant Man, [and] one of the things that [isn’t made] very apparent in the film (again, without [wanting to] reveal anything) is that the Elephant Man was actually displayed in what’s called a ‘Penny Gaff’ – a shop show [not affiliated with any fairground]. These were very common in London and in major places of entertainment at the time, and they were literally a small shop that would exhibit humans with novelties, exhibit attractions, and they flourished from the 1870s right up until the 1920s. A lot of these were based on the concept of the ‘Museum of Curiosity’ and they were always part of the high street – main frontline shops that were not down back alleys and were very much part of mainstream entertainment culture.

So THE ELEPHANT MAN raises issues for historians; it raises issues for historians because it is now, though visual culture and the worldwide publicity this film attracted – due to the magnificence of the performance, the magnificence of the make-up, the direction, the stage direction, the lighting, the scripting – the film is in many ways one of David Lynch’s masterpieces. The film itself as a historical record, it is a work of fiction in many ways because it is based on Treves’ reminiscences which don’t actually add up. A number of scholars over the last 5 years, following on from Howell & Ford, have looked at Treves in relation and have come to the conclusion that the person who [made] the most money out of the Elephant Man was actually the London Museum of Frederick Treves. That raises issues of the relation between the medical profession and the exploitation of the freak show entertainment in the 19th century.

In terms of going back to why [I was invited to speak here], also the myth of science [in] entertainment; the relationship between science and entertainment goes all the way back throughout the 19th century where the scientist [themselves are the entertainers]. If you look at the Royal Polytechnic building in London, most of the shows there were entertainment lectures – the most famous being ‘Pepper’s Ghost’. One of the things that the Elephant Man [claimed] in his own autobiography (sold as part of the freak show attraction) was that when […] he was in his mother’s womb, his mother was attacked or knocked over by an elephant, and that [was how] the elephant’s features were transposed onto the baby inside the womb. This was actually a theory [of maternal ailment] that was widely held at the time; that whatever happened to the mother during the pregnancy would actually [be imposed] onto the [features] of the child. In terms of the freak show mythology, this goes right back to the 18th century, where the most famous attraction on the fairs and on the shows was ‘The Pig-face Lady’, and then ‘The Bear Lady’, and in the 20th century in America, that kind of attraction was known as ‘The Lobster Boy’. [They share] the same theory of maternal ailment; whatever happens to the mother during the pregnancy [would] affect the child in the womb. That was the science at the time, that’s what they believed. So when Joseph Merrick was actually [writing this] in his autobiography, he was presenting this as a kind of scientific argument. The reason why that was a major change was to get away from a religious idea that the sins of the mother and […] father had come through [to] the child. In some ways they were trying to explain an irrational idea through science, [and] is another idea that runs through the film where you see flashbacks to the pre-life of the Elephant Man.

“…the showman is shown as a drunkard, [whereas] Tom Norman [in actual fact] was head of the United Kingdom temperance society…”

For me, as a historian, THE ELEPHANT MAN has many problems; it has problems because it takes on the characteristics of what the travelling community see [as centuries] of prejudice and racism – […] it presumes that somebody who [has] a travelling background displays all the characteristics [of] the way they portray the showman in the film. The second thing on a straightforward historical note, [is that] the showman is shown as a drunkard, [whereas] Tom Norman [in actual fact] was head of the United Kingdom temperance society. He was completely anti-drink and all of his addresses [for] correspondences through this period [show that] he stayed at temperance hotels throughout the United Kingdom.

So why did David Lynch not bother? [It is] because in some ways, that wasn’t the story; the story for them was the story of this remarkable human being, Joseph Merrick. Joseph Merrick was [indeed] a remarkable human being; at some point in his life he learnt to read and write, [displaying] remarkable tenacity to overcome an extreme physical disability that his illness was causing him. He ended up encased within the London Museum, which in many ways was a freak show in and of itself. Whether that was a good or bad thing, is up to historians to argue, and in fact there is a whole group of historians who argue the merits of this. At the moment, the revisionism is looking more towards the fact that Tom Norman has been badly treated by history – but [due to] the nature of academic research, in 20 years time, [the opinion] could swing back the other way. […] We have the Norman family collection in the Fairground Archive, and [the Norman family] are still very reticent to this day to appear in documentaries because they are still so angry about what they see as a century-old slur on their family name. Tom Norman had ten children, 5 of those children went into show business and are still travelling today. The great-grandson of Tom Norman lives less than 15 miles down the road from Cambridge. They feel that the Elephant Man has blighted their career as show people for [an event] that [actually represents] only 3 months of their great-grandfather’s career. The family claim (and I haven’t had an opportunity to [verify this]) that they [had] Tom Norman’s name removed from the film, and [that this] is why the shadow of the showman is quite unnamed.

“…freak shows and sideshows were all about performance; many of the sideshow attractions of the day were earning literally hundreds of pounds a week…”

[The character] is actually based on 4 showmen: Joseph Merrick was taken over by a syndicate who would own shares in a performance in the same way they owned shares in a show, which was quite common at the time. He was licensed or leased as a show to Tom Norman, [due to] the syndicate not being able to take money with the Elephant Man because he was seen as too horrific at the time. That’s why, if you look at the wider culture of entertain in the 18th century around the time Tom Norman was exhibiting, freak shows and sideshows were all about performance; many of the sideshow attractions of the day were earning literally hundreds of pounds a week (and we have the figures [to prove] that), but [this money was accrued entirely from] performance – it was not about looking, seeing or viewing, it was always about doing an additional show. The Elephant Man was a throwback to a form of exhibition culture [that] was no longer part of mainstream entertainment. The type of story he told with it – the maternal ailment – was really more common in the 1840’s, and it is the reason why The Elephant Man in entertainment of the 19th century at the time [was] little more than a footnote. You [would] not find huge amounts of evidence about him in at all the same way you would have with any other sideshow performer.

All these things are interesting things to bear in mind when you watch the film, and I’m more than happy to take questions and have a debate [after the screening]. It is truly a magnificent piece of filmmaking. As a historical [account] it has many problems. I hope you enjoy the material. Thank you.

Thanks to MoMenTum for the cover photo of Professor Toulmin.


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