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,