Profile of a Great Soul: Joseph Merrick (The Elephant Man)

This afternoon as I waited for my computer to download security updates, my bored eyes fixed on The True History of the Elephant Man by Michael Howell and Peter Ford in the bookcase, and I decided then and there to tell you about Joseph Carey Merrick.***


Joseph Merrick in 1888. (Credit: Wikipedia)

As you would suspect, Merrick was called the Elephant Man for a reason. He was as ugly a man as ever lived. Born in England in 1862, Merrick showed signs of what is now believed to be Proteus syndrome when he was two years old and his lower lip began swelling. Within a few months, a tumor developed on his cheek and upper lip. Soon another appeared on his forehead, and his skin became rough and hung loosely from his body. By the time Merrick was four or five, his feet and right arm grew disproportionately large. A fall damaged his left hip, which left him with a permanent limp.

Howell and Ford’s book includes “The Autobiography of Joseph Carey Merrick.” I’ll let Merrick himself describe what came next in his life:

I went to school like other children until I was about 11 or 12 years of age, when the greatest misfortune of my life occurred, namely—the death of my mother, peace to her, she was a good mother to me; after she died my father broke up his home and went to lodgings; unfortunately for me he married his landlady; henceforth I never had one moment’s comfort, she having children of her own, and I not being so handsome as they, together with my deformity, she was the means of making my life a perfect misery; lame and deformed as I was, I ran, or rather walked away from home two or three times . . . .


The hood Joseph Merrick wore in public. (Credit: Wikipedia)

At thirteen Merrick got a job rolling cigars by hand, but his right hand grew too clumsy even for that. His stepmother’s cruelty made him prefer hunger and the streets rather than home, but his increasingly disturbing appearance prevented him from begging and drew curious crowds. As a teenager he lived in an infirmary, where he had surgery to remove the tumor from his upper lip, which hung down over his mouth like an elephant’s trunk.

In his early twenties, Merrick took to the road, displaying himself in freak shows. He saved fifty British pounds (a lot of money in those days), which were stolen by his manager, who left him stranded in Belgium. Broke, hungry, and demoralized, Merrick somehow managed to buy passage on a boat to England, where he landed in London, smelling foul and speaking unintelligibly through his twisted lips. When the police discovered him collapsed in a heap in a corner of a railway station and besieged by folks gawking at the freak, he handed them a business card he had wisely preserved during his journeys. On it was the name of a London physician, Frederick Treves, who had once examined Merrick.


Joseph Merrick in 1889. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The police found Treves, and together they hoisted the Elephant Man into a horse-drawn cab and took him to the London Hospital, where his fortunes changed. As the public heard the story of Merrick’s horrible experiences, citizens donated funds to provide for his care. Frederick Treves became his doctor and friend. After years of cruelty and humiliation, he found a home at the London Hospital. There, in two basement rooms, he received medical attention, welcomed visitors from the elite of London society (including the Princess of Wales), and lived simply for the rest of his days.

To me Merrick’s deformities and sufferings aren’t the most remarkable aspects of his story. What makes him heroic is the absence of rancor in his heart. In his article “The Elephant Man,” Frederick Treves wrote that Merrick “was not the least spoiled; not the least puffed up; he never asked for anything; was always humbly and profoundly grateful” and “one of the most contented creatures I have chanced to meet.”


Sir Frederick Treves (Credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, Merrick’s abuse and abandonment left wounds. He could never quite believe that his rooms at London Hospital were permanent and occasionally asked Treves where and when he would be moved next. Would it be possible, Merrick wondered, to live at a blind asylum or a remote lighthouse, where he wouldn’t be a spectacle? At times unknown forces plunged him into hours of despair, when he would rock and beat on the arm of his chair with his massive right hand.

“As a specimen of humanity,” Treves wrote, “Merrick was ignoble and repulsive; but the spirit of Merrick, if it could be seen in the form of the living, would assume the figure of an upstanding and heroic man, smooth browed and clean of limb, and with eyes that flashed undaunted courage.”


Joseph Merrick in 1889. (Credit: Wikipedia)

As Merrick’s disease progressed, his body became not only increasingly repulsive to others, but also exhausting and awkward for him to control. In his essay “The Elephant Man,” Frederick Treves describes one of Merrick’s problems that led to his death:

So large and so heavy was his head that he could not sleep lying down. When he assumed the recumbent position the massive skull was inclined to drop backwards, with the result that he experienced no little distress. The attitude he was compelled to assume when he slept was very strange. He sat up in bed with his back supported by pillows, his knees were drawn up, and his arms were clasped around his legs, while his head rested on the points of his bent knees.

He often said to me that he wished he could lie down to sleep ‘like other people’. I think . . . he must, with some determination, have made the experiment. The pillow was soft, and the head, when placed on it, must have fallen backwards and caused a dislocation of the neck. Thus it came about that his death was due to the desire that had dominated his life—the pathetic but hopeless desire to be ‘like other people’.

Merrick’s body may have been pathetic, but I consider him a great soul. Instead of raging at the universe, Merrick created cardboard cathedrals to give away and wrote numerous letters, which he sometimes concluded with an adaptation of two stanzas of “False Greatness” by Isaac Watts:

            ‘Tis true my form is something odd,

            But blaming me is blaming God;

            Could I create myself anew

            I would not fail in pleasing you.

            If I could reach from pole to pole

            Or grasp the ocean with a span

            I would be measured by the soul;

            The mind’s the standard of the man.


Merrick’s skeleton, not on public display, not owned by Michael Jackson’s estate, but kept in the pathology collection of the Royal London Hospital. (Credit: Wikipedia)

***Dear Blogging Friends / Readers:

This post is an excerpt from a book I’ll have coming out–God willing!–in late June. It’s a collection of notes to my grandchildren called Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs . . . and Other Wonders Before Your Time. As I write in the opening, I’ll hand the book to them when I think they’re ready and say, “Start reading this collection on a gray day.” This indie publishing jazz takes a lot of time and energy. Whew! For the next week or two my blog reading and posting will be a little compromised as I wrap this baby up. I hope you’ll still love me when I come back with full force. Oh yeah, and for the love of God, please buy Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs when it comes out. I’m trying to keep it cheap: $9.99 in paperback first, with the Kindle edition coming out a week later for a trifling 99 cents–I think. Pretty sure.

Note: in the book I can only include one photograph, that of Merrick in his suit. The rest I include here as a mixed blessing, I guess. Fortunately, great souls don’t require great bodies.

Peace and love,


20 thoughts on “Profile of a Great Soul: Joseph Merrick (The Elephant Man)

  1. John,
    You never fail to please . I enjoy your blog and I’m sitting here in Starbucks trying not to cry after reading about the Elephant Man. Thank you for sharing your gift .

  2. Great post! Sad but heartwarming, the humanity of people. Looking forward to that book…you know I am! Planning to purchase the minute it comes out! Cheers to that! 😀

  3. How exciting for you, John! I’m excited to hear about your publication – and look forward to reading the book.

    Take good care, and don’t forget to nap! (And also to row!)

    • Today’s my day off, so I’ll be slogging away at the book, lunch with Cole and Elena, A NAP, and hopefully a run. Be well yourself, Nancy.

    • Hey there. I saw the play years ago when I was in college and the film around the same time. Really powerful. Peace and best, John

  4. Wonderful story, John! And it is a grey day and am feeling a little blue and abandoned by the man who’s out there rescuing/healing. Looking forward to reading your book. Way to go!

  5. Although I did not even see the film “The Elephant Man” until just twelve days after you posted this, it was not for want of trying. Every time before 20 May 2014 that I’d learn that the “The Elephant Man” was coming up in the telly schedule, something at least a little bit extraordinary botched the plan and prevented me from watching. BUT, every time I would ALSO do a little “prep work” in advance, to get to know the story of the REAL Joseph Merrick, so I would spend my precious (and inevitable) tears on his true tragedies and triumphs, and NOT squander them on Hollywood fabrications.

    The very first thing I ever learned about dear Mr. Merrick, however many years ago that was, made him absolutely golden to me — you see, our “autobiographies” begin with exactly the same words: “I first saw the light on the 5th of August …” My brain has ALWAYS refused to consider his appearance to be anything worse than “infinitely fascinating”, and I actually like to refer to him, formally, when such an opportunity arises, as “The Charming Young Gentleman”. Informally, he’s “Merrie”, who is always welcome to share a birthday cupcake with me.

    Incidentally, considering that he supposedly objected to the way the doctors (paraphrasing) stripped him naked so he felt like an animal in a cattle market, I think you do The Charming Young Gentleman a well deserved kindness to include only his seated portrait, wearing his spiffy three-piece custom-tailored suit, in your book. I can’t imagine how distressed he would be to know of the millions of people who have seen his “medical” photos. Poor lad — gone for almost 125 years, and people are still gawking at him.

    • Hi, Denna,

      Thanks for reading my post on “Merrie” and for writing such a thoughtful comment. (And sorry for being so late to reply.)

      It’s coming up on ten years ago that I wrote the content for the post–having adapted it from my book. And it’s been, geez, over thirty years since I first saw Bernard Pomerance’s play and David Lynch’s movie, both of called Merrick “John.” Irk. Oddly enough, it was only in the last year or so I learned of Merrick’s displeasure at having been poked, prodded, and displayed like cattle. Bright as he was, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I did further reading that discredits some of the claims of Merrick’s unhappiness, but I guess we may never know exactly what he felt.

      Honesty compels me, by the way, to let you know that I ended up using one of Merrick’s medical photographs in my book. I had originally settled on his seated portrait, but when the galleys arrived his face was badly out of focus. I felt it most important for his face to be clear, so I used a standing medical portrait with only his chest being bare. I wanted readers to be able to look into his eyes. My wife and I both thought the naked photos showing the full extent of his deformity would have been unnecessary, in poor taste. I’ll also say, however, that I’ve probably seen most of the medical photographs and have mixed feelings about how easily accessible they are. On one hand, I imagine Merrick would be “distressed” (good word) at being so exposed. At the same time, those images had a powerful impact on me. They caused me to consider what it means to be human and appreciate what inner-resources he must have had to endure not only the physical pain but the embarrassment his appearance caused. So, I do place some value on those graphic photographs.

      Thanks again for writing, Denna. I understand Bradley Cooper is starring in a current production–hope you might catch it.

      Peace and best,

  6. Hi John, a good article on, as you say, a great soul. As someone who has been compared to Joseph Merrick, abused like him etc etc and someone who has read and studied nearly 50 articles written about him I’d like to just make a couple of points.

    Many people mistake Joseph’s story. Often this is due to a natural bias whereby we try to recreate the story in a way that in some way lessens the challenge for us. For example, Joseph’s plight is often portrayed in a heroic light as we just can’t stand the thought that actually his life was really terrible. We put a heroic spin on it so we don’t have to see that a human’s life could really just be tragic and terrible (maybe it could have been us?). This is not to dismiss his heroism, which was real, but we need to see it for what it really was…totally tragic and full of non-stop suffering.

    Similarly, his life is often referred to as a story of human dignity when in fact it’s actually a story of indignity…his life is a relentless series of indignities inflicted on him. Also you mention he had no rancour, actually that is not true either and there are quite a few moments when he got angry and lashed out (fair enough too) such as with Doctor Treves.

    Making him a saint may make us feel better (and in many ways he was a saint) but it’s not fair to rob him of his justifiable sadness, anger, melancholy, moroseness (which Treves observed also). He did suicide in the end.

    Also his deformities, which many texts deliberately sideline to try and concentrate on the man’s spirit, were significant and painful in the absolute extreme. There is only one article, produced not that long ago, in which for the first time a modern day doctor examined his various conditions and articulated what pain he must have been suffering. The article was horrifying to read particularly when one considers that there were no painkillers back then so he had to endure horrific pain without relief. Denying him of this reality robs him yet again of what it must have been truly like to be Joseph Merrick.

    That people took every opportunity to abuse him says a lot about what he suffered not just physically but mentally as well (it IS why he suicided)…it also says a lot about humanity that they would treat him so horribly when he was already suffering more than they were…by a long margin.

    Hope all is well in your world.

    • Dear Pieter,

      I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you so thoughtfully and candidly responded to my profile of Joseph Merrick. And I want to say a sincere “thank you” for voicing your reservations and corrections. You say it was a “good article,” but, in fact, in consideration of your note, it was pretty sugary. I own that and want to make things right as best I can. As someone who has read and thought a lot about Merrick, you could do me a great service by pointing me in the direction of those articles you refer to. I would appreciate the opportunity to explore the fullness of his life, with all of its indignities, tragedy and unimaginable physical and mental suffering. In time I would hope write another profile that’s more truthful and helpful.

      Meanwhile, do you think it would be best to take down this existing piece from my blog? I would certainly respect your opinion on that point and have a sturdy ego where writing is concerned. I would also welcome correspondence with you, as I suspect you would have much to teach me. If you’ve been compared to Joseph Merrick and have endured similar abuse, you’ve likely gathered more wisdom and toughness than most of us earthly pilgrims.

      To be sure you receive this response, I’ll send a copy to your email address. Hope all is well in your world, too.

      Peace and best,
      John Coleman

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