A bid to erect a statue in tribute to 'Elephant Man' in Leicester has been stymied by critics who say the city is 'ugly enough', according to reports.

Joseph Merrick became world famous due to a rare genetic disorder that is thought to have caused his severe deformities.

His appearance gave rise to the nickname that followed him to his death in Leicester in 1890 at the age of 27.

He remains a source of curiosity as the exact cause of his condition is still a mystery among medical experts to this day.

His biographer, Jo Vigor-Mungovin, has been trying to raise an estimated £100,000 to pay tribute to Merrick in the form of a statue in his home town.

She told the BBC that various fiction and documentary works about his life make people feel sorry for him.

Sculptor Sean Hedges Quinn's ketches of the proposed design for a statue in Leicester in tribute to Merrick

But she felt he had managed to use his condition to his advantage, calling Merrick's life "a powerful story."

However critics have already put up roadblocks to the idea- labelling it a 'freak show' and claiming the city is already 'ugly enough'.

The reaction has dismayed Mrs Vigor-Mungovin, who told the broadcaster she felt progress on a fitting tribute to Merrick had been road-blocked by prejudice.

She said: "There is a fear of what the statue would be like - but he was an inspirational figure".

The statue has reportedly received backing from artist and disability campaigner Alison Lapper, who told the statue's critics to "get over it."

She was born without arms and shortened legs, and a statue of her naked and pregnant was displayed in London's Trafalgar Square.

Sculptor Sean Hedges Quinn imagines a statue tribute to 'Elephant Man'


The artist recalled some critics being shocked at the sight of her own statue, saying she sympathised with how hard it must have been for Merrick to live as a disabled person in his day.

Merrick spent much of his life in Victorian-era England in the travelling 'freak shows' popular at the time.

His mother died when he was 11 and after Merrick's father remarried, he and his new wife rejected the boy.

The young boy was by then suffering from increasing deformities, and was forced to toil in the Victorian workhouses.

He went to live with his uncle, and when he was 17 he contacted a showman offering himself up to be toured as an exhibit.

He was given the nickname 'Elephant Man' and had become a popular spectacle when a surgeon caught wind of his existence and asked if he might examine him.

As public acceptance of freak shows began to dwindle, Merrick went to be exhibited throughout Europe in a travelling circus, until he was robbed and abandoned by his road manager in Belgium.

Merrick returned to the London Hospital where was permitted to stay for the rest of his life.

John Merrick stands in right profile behind a chair to illustrate the deformities caused by his disease,

There, he was visited almost daily by the surgeon who had examined him, Frederick Treves, in what would become the most significant relationship of his life.

Treves was able to understand Merrick's speech, and learned his life story.

The doctor soon realised that the impression that he was intellectually impaired was false.

Merrick lived out his life in special rooms at the hospital with no mirrors, at his own request.

He developed a close friendship with Treves, who recognised his loneliness and invited high society figures and even royals to the hospital to meet Merrick and exchange gifts and conversation with him.

He died in hospital from a dislocated neck when he was just 27.

Merrick's skull has been studied since his death

His skeleton was kept at the hospital- now the Royal London in Whitechapel - but his gravesite containing his soft tissue was lost until relatively recently.

The cause of his deformities was never clear, and modern era DNA tests  on his bones and hair could not pinpoint his exact condition, although some think it was caused by a rare condition called Proteus syndrome..

Shortly after tracking down Merrick's grave site, which is now marked with a plaque, Mrs Vigor-Mungovin began her campaign to have a statue erected in tribute to him.

She told the BBC she is a descendant of Tom Norman, a showman who worked with Merrick, and she was disgusted to herself be accused of treating his legacy like a freak show as she tried to establish a fitting memorial.

'Elephant Man' has been the subject of books, plays and a film, and his nickname- if not always his real name- is recognised around the world.

Mrs Vigor-Mungovin was horrified by the backlash she has experienced since setting out to see him remembered in Leicester.

British actor John Hurt as John Merrick, and Hannah Gordon as Ann Treves, in 1980 film 'The Elephant Man'

A letter printed in the Leicester Mercury newspaper in recent months expressed sympathy for his plight, but then went on to claim he would not have wanted a statue of himself.

It read: "He was a freak of nature... our city has become ugly enough without a statue of this poor man being displayed."

"I wasn't expecting it to be controversial," Mrs Vigor-Mungovin told the BBC in the wake of the criticism. "But I've come across the same reaction over and over.

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"When I approach funding sources or venues, people seem interested at first but when they hear it will be a statue of the Elephant Man, they seem a bit shocked.

But on the statue appeal's Facebook page , many commentators criticised the letter, saying they were locals and they supported her dream to commemorate him.

One commenter wrote: "Joseph Merrick is an inspiration to everyone, more so to those with disabilities proving that against all odds he supported himself and became independent despite ridicule of his situation...

"Erecting a statue of him is just the inspiration to overcome biases this town may need."