Gosforth Elephant Man model dissection show slammed for 'trivialising disability for entertainment'

Elephant Man Joseph Merrick
Joseph Merrick, exhibited in Victorian freak shows as 'The Elephant Man' Credit: PA

An event in which a model of the 'Elephant Man' Joseph Merrick will be dissected in front of an audience is "trivialising disability for entertainment and profit", a top city councillor has claimed.

The Gosforth 'Dinner and Dissection' show - due to be held in October - has sparked anger from campaigners, who claim it is exploiting people with disabilities.

Mr Merrick, who was exhibited at freak shows in the 1800s, is thought to have suffered from a rare condition called Proteus syndrome, which causes abnormal tissue growth.

Four shows scheduled at Gosforth Rugby Club at the end of next month promise audiences an "incredible educational experience" as a replica of his body is dissected live inside a big top tent, with the event's website featuring circus imagery and the words "roll up, roll up".

The event poster Credit: ITAE Productions

Its organisers say the events have a "valuable educational mission", but more than 7,000 people have signed a petition opposing them.

They have also been criticised by charities including Changing Faces, while a top Labour figure in Newcastle has now also spoken out.

Councillor John-Paul Stephenson, Newcastle City Council's cabinet member for public health and culture, said: "Disabilities cannot be trivialised in this way. This is 21st century Newcastle, not a 19th century playground. 

"Distasteful and stereotypical representations of disability are incompatible with the inclusive values of our city.

The event is being organised by ITAE Productions, which operates from the Toffee Factory in Ouseburn and won investment from Peter Jones and Deborah Meaden on Dragons' Den in 2018.

The company has held similar shows in Newcastle over recent years, including a contagion-themed night in 2020 and 'Murder Trial Live'.

Joseph Merrick | Life timeline

  • August 1862 - Born a healthy baby in Leicester with no sign of any disorder.

  • May 1864 - Begins to develop swelling lips - according to the Illustrated Leicester Chronicle - followed by a bony lump on his forehead and a loosening and roughening of the skin.

  • 1867 - By age five he had developed thick, lumpy and grey skin.

  • 1875 - Left school aged 13 and found a job rolling cigars.

  • 1877- Is severely beaten by his father and leaves home for good. He had previously made many attempts to run away from home.

  • 1878 - A growing deformity on his right hand made him unable to role cigars. Joseph entered unemployment. He is taken in by his uncle after living as a homeless person on the streets of Leicester.

  • December 1879 - Entered Leicester Union Workhouse, where he stayed until 1884.

  • 1882 - Underwent facial surgery. Much of his large facial tumour was removed.

  • 3 August 1884 - Merrick departs the workhouse to start his new career as a curiosity in human novelty exhibitions after meeting music hall comedian and businessman Sam Torr.

  • Late 1884 - Prominent surgeon Sir Frederick Treves first attends a Merrick exhibition.

  • 1885 - Joins Sam Roper's travelling fair. Begins a European tour and is robbed and abandoned by his manager in Belgium.

  • 24 June 1886 - Makes his way back to Liverpool Street Station in London and draws a large crowd. Police find Frederick Treves' card on Merrick's person and contact the surgeon.

  • 24 June 1886 cont. - Treves takes Merrick to the London Hospital.

  • 1886 - 1890 - Physicians steadily discover that Merrick is not intellectually impaired. Merrick builds a replica of Mainz Cathedral out of card.

  • 11 April 1890 - Merrick dies in his bed, aged 27. Treves determined the cause of death to be asphyxia, caused by the weight of his head as he lay down. Merrick usually slept upright out of necessity, causing Treves to conclude that he had died experimenting sleeping lying down "like other people".

Samuel Piri, the company's CEO, said the Dinner and Dissection series "inspires many people to take an active interest in how the human body works and what happens in states of disease".

He added that the company had held talks with charities that raised concerns over the Elephant Man event and that ITAE Group is an "avid promoter of inclusion and diversity".

Mr Piri said: "Our event will see attendees learn about Joseph Merrick, understand his medical condition as well as teach about wider human anatomy through hands-on dissection.

"We are still finalising the exact show content which has been very well received by academics, healthcare professionals and those aspiring to be. 

He added: "We are telling the story of Joseph Merrick using cutting edge special effects, from a scientific perspective in an engaging format that audiences will remember.

"As an experienced teacher and communicator of science, I invite anybody reading this article to reflect on their own learning journey, after all the best lessons, the ones you remember are the ones you enjoy. Science is no different."