JOSEPH MERRICK – The Elephant Man

joseph-merrick the elephant man

The times and tribulations of The Elephant Man, Joseph Carey Merrick, have long been the subject of books, films and theatre. As a result, ‘The Elephant Man’ is without a doubt the most famous human prodigy of all time. His story garnered the sympathy of Victorian England and after the span of one hundred years, his plight remains no less heart wrenching or inspiring.

Joseph Merrick was born on August 5, 1862 in Leicester to Mary Jane and Joseph Rockley Merrick. He had a younger brother and sister and was completely normal until the age of three.In an autobiographical note which appeared on the reverse side of his freak show pamphlet, Merrick noted that his deformity first manifested with small bumps appearing on the left side of his body. By the time he was 12, and his mother passed away, Joseph’s deformities were severe. When his father remarried, his stepmother expelled him from the house and young Joseph began struggling not only against his deformity, but starvation and homelessness as well.

For a time, Joseph Merrick attempted to earn a living by selling door-to-door and on the street. Despite hiding his face behind a burlap mask, Merrick still endured the constant harassment of local children and many adults. His sales attempts were futile and he eventually ended up in the Leicester Union workhouse.

Victorian workhouses were not friendly places. They were akin to prisons, where the unemployed and unemployable toiled in the most unwanted laborious tasks of the era. Due to his progressing deformity, Joseph was soon unable to manually work at all and on August 29, 1884 he took a job as a curiosity attraction.

Contrary to film accounts, Merrick was well treated as an exhibit and well paid for his time. While on exhibit on Mile End Road in London, now the London Sari Centre, his path first crossed with Dr. Fredrick Treves. Treves, who would later chronicle and befriend Merrick, gave him one of his business cards after Merrick politely declined an examination. When human curiosity exhibits were outlawed in the United Kingdome in 1886, Merrick travelled to Belgium for work. There he was indeed mistreated and ultimatly robbed and abandoned by his promoter. He also contracted a severe bronchial infection further complicated by his deformities.

Upon his return to London, Merrick was the involved in a disturbance at Liverpool Street train station when his masked appearance and twisted body caused hysteria. Merrick was unable to speak due to his bronchial infection but had retained the business card of Dr. Treves, which he presented to authorities. Treves was quickly summoned from the London Hospital and soon arranged for Merrick to be given permanent quarters in the hospital.

It was during this time that Joseph Merrick thrived.

Despite a living in constant physical and emotional pain, The Elephant Man possessed an indomitable spirit. He quickly became the subject of much public sympathy and something of a celebrity in Victorian high society. Alexandra, then Princess of Wales and later Queen Consort, demonstrated a kindly interest in Merrick, leading other members of the upper class to embrace him. He eventually became a favourite of Queen Victoria. However, Treves later commented that Merrick always wanted, even after living at the hospital, to go to a hospital for the blind where he might find a woman who would not be repelled by his appearance and love him. In his later years, he found some solace in writing, composing remarkable heartfelt prose and poetry.

In the summer of 1887, Merrick spent time vacationing at the Fawsley Hall estate, Northamptonshire. Special measures were taken for his journey there as he was forced to travel in a carriage with blinds drawn. Merrick enjoyed his time away from urban London greatly and collected wildflowers to take back with him to London. He visited Fawsley Hall again in 1888 and 1889.

Joseph Merrick was cared for at the hospital until his death at the age of 27 on April 11, 1890. He died from the accidental dislocation of his neck due to its inability to support the weight of his massive head in sleep. Merrick, unable to sleep reclining due to the weight of his head, may have tried to do so in this instance, in an attempt to imitate normal behaviour.

Joseph Merrick was originally thought to be suffering from elephantiasis. In 1971, Ashley Montagu suggested in the book The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity that Merrick suffered from neurofibromatosis type I, a genetic disorder also known as von Recklinghausen’s disease. NF1 is still strongly associated with Joseph Merrick in the mind of the public; however, it was postulated in 1986 that Merrick actually suffered from Proteus syndrome, a condition which had only been identified in 1979.

As it stands, we don’t know exactly what Merrick suffered from but many people still mistakenly refer to his condition as elephantiasis.

Merrick’s preserved skeleton was previously on display at the Royal London Hospital. While his remains can no longer be viewed by the public, there is a small museum focused on his life, which houses some of his personal effects and period Merrick memorabilia.

Note: While Joseph Merrick is better known as John Merrick, it is not his birth name. Sir Fredrick Treves recalled the name as such in his memoirs. It is unclear if Treves recalled details incorrectly or if Joseph Merrick went by John.

Links:
I highly recommend The True History of The Elephant Man.
Joseph Carey Merrick tribute site.

RELATED MATERIAL FROM THE AMAZON LIBRARY

Elephant Man [Import]
The Elephant Man : A Study in Human Dignity
The True History of the Elephant Man: The Definitive Account of the Tragic and Extraordinary Life of Joseph Carey Merrick
Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit
The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences

Author, researcher and an expert of the odd, J. Tithonus Pednaud has been chronicling bizarre history and highlighting the lives of those born exceeding different for over a decade.

66 Comments

  • Reply May 5, 2008

    Anonymous

    The only time I ever cried while wathing a movie was during “
    The Elephant Man”

  • Reply July 29, 2008

    Anonymous

    The elephant man was a decent person who happened to have been deformed I feel compassion for him.

  • Reply September 23, 2008

    Miel

    Joseph is definitely my favorite “Human marvel.” I’ve always been fascinated with him. I remember being 15years old seeing his imagine and being terribly frightened, I couldn’t sleep well for a week. I was always intrigued, so one day I decided to purchase the the movie and was moved to tears! I fell in love with him. He was an amazing human being. I believe God puts every one of these special beings on the earth for a reason and we can learn something from all of them. This is truley a great site, happy to have stumbled across it.

  • Reply September 23, 2008

    J Tithonus Pednaud

    Thank you for your kind words Miel. Joseph is one of my favorite human beings, ever.

  • Reply October 22, 2008

    Cheyne

    Good words.

  • Reply October 25, 2008

    Mae

    Thank you for a very well-written, compassionate biography of Joseph Merrick, who lived with dignity, grace and courage, and always remained a human being to the end.

  • Reply October 28, 2008

    Kimberly

    I as well feel sympathy for Joseph Carey Merrick. He was a human just as the rest of us, not an animal. He shouldn’t have been treated the way he was. I feel if it were somebody else, we too would feel as if we should be treated the same as any other human.

    -Kimberly
    North Rockland N.Y.

  • Reply January 11, 2009

    Richard

    I do not feel sympathy for him. I feel as though he was a human and that he lived his life to his fullest despite his deformities. To say I feel sympathy implies there was truly something wrong with him, when in reality, he was “normal” as could be and he probably lived a life more full than “normal” human beings will ever!

  • Reply January 11, 2009

    Chris McGregor

    His name was John not Joseph

  • Reply February 15, 2009

    Mark Foster

    Actually it has already been stated that John was not his true name but Joseph was. An argument that has been going on for over a century.

  • Reply March 1, 2009

    bee.

    i believe that his story is truly inspiring.

  • Reply May 14, 2009

    Angel

    This is truly a heart felt story. The story of his life has touched my heart. I will be on vacation in London, and I was wondering, does anyone know where the small museum, that is dedicated to him is? I haven’t been able to find the location, and I’d like to see it.

  • Reply May 27, 2009

    FoxLuvr72

    I would of been honoured to have known him if I was living in his era.

  • Reply May 28, 2009

    azurebird

    I have felt a special kinship with Joseph Merrick ever since I was a little girl. I suffer from Neurofibromatosis and although I now know that Mr. Merrick does not have the disease, I can at least partly understand his pain. The shape of my torso is very similar to his due to my severe Skoliosis and other physical issues. Mr. Merrick was a special man; and one day, after I die, I will be able to finally meet him and thank him for his example of strength and courage. :)

    Thank you for this website!

  • Reply May 31, 2009

    Lili

    I’m studying him at school, and I’m really interested in his story. I believe it’s one that shows how humans can be so cruel, and yet it inspires people.

  • Reply June 9, 2009

    Mae

    Angel, if you haven’t gone to London yet, the museum is in the basement of St. Philips Cathedral across from The Royal London Hospital. I believe the closest tube stop is Whitechapel. If you Google London Hospital Museum, you can find the visiting hours and directions. Enjoy your visit!

  • Reply July 21, 2009

    ms,m

    i have a list of people that i would like to dine with(deceased);if i could-or meet in Heaven.Mr.Merrick is on that list.

  • Reply August 4, 2009

    golde

    i m in shock
    where can i find the movie?!
    could u give me a link or something….i wanna see

  • Reply September 26, 2009

    lolarasta

    God works in mysterious ways!

  • Reply October 1, 2009

    Spotlite DH

    He’s an inspiration to all who studied him and mostly those who met him.

  • Reply October 12, 2009

    Jamanjax

    I always knew of Merrick’s condition, though I didn’t know about the story behind the man himself. I’ve spent the last two nights watching and reading various things about him, and I can definitely say that his story has changed my life. Joseph was truly an amazing example of a human being, and I can’t think of a bigger inspiration. If any sort of afterlife exists, I certainly look forward to meeting him there.

  • Reply October 30, 2009

    jose

    i was touched when i saw the elephant man movie it must be painful
    being joseph but at least he had people who loved him if anyone knows
    a close location where i can find a museum that would show the skeleton
    of joseph carey merrick

  • Reply November 24, 2009

    Tyler

    I have not seen the movie but I had to wirte an artical about him for school and I found some very sad things about this man and I didn’t know people still get this disorder today. I feel very sory for those people who have it.

  • Reply December 5, 2009

    Kati Barrett

    In my school, we read this book and I felt realy discused when they described joseph merric. We all thought this was a fake story, like made up. But when my teacher told bus this was a true story…I felt sad for him, and simpothetic. This story changed my veiw on others with imperfections that I know and saw everyday. I was starting to wave back when the children at my schoo, with autism and other problems would wave to me, and say hi to then and help them if they needed it. This story changed me, and I like the way it did. Thanks to Joseph Merric, the most beauitful man I ever saw.

  • Reply January 13, 2010

    Sharayah

    I think Joseph is an incredibly admirable character. He survived and actually was able to live in a unforgiving world for 27 years without animosity and rage. This is a well written, informative and compassionate article about a remarkables human being. Thank you, it was very helpful!

  • Reply February 2, 2010

    Johnny

    I remember seeing the movie when I was about 10 years old, and Merrick’s story moved me to tears. I just couldn’t believe how cruel and heartless some people could be just because a man is deformed and doesn’t happen to look like everyone else. The thing that amazed me about Joseph Merrick was his amazing spirit and his will to overcome the terrible disease over which he had no control, to make the best of his short time on this world. His creativity was astounding, the picture of the card church he built that’s on wikipedia is incredible!!! The movie was so sad that I don’t think I will ever watch it again, but that doesn’t matter because I will forever hold Merrick in the highest regard for his perseverance, his wonderful spirit, and desire to overcome the cruelty and short-sightedness of others to show that true beauty goes far beyond what you see on the outside.

  • Reply February 19, 2010

    David

    I don’t know much about Joeseph but, from what I do know, I can say that he must have been a truly wonderful man. I know, as has been said, sympathy is not the best emotion to hold for him, but I certainly do feel something for him in my heart. There is very little I can say to express what I feel. Words just aren’t enough….I’m literally stuck for words. I hope my silence tells Joeseph just how much he means to the world.

  • Reply March 23, 2010

    Bryce

    Joseph Merrick was a compassionate man and an amazing poet who show compassion to everyone including those who mistreated or avoided him. This is one of his poems which embodies how he believes the world perceives him and why he is able to forgive others for their ill thoughts and actions towards him. Enjoy!

    “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.”
    - Joseph Merrick.

  • Reply March 23, 2010

    Bryce

    Actually I need to apologize. The above poem was actually written by Isaac Watts. Joseph could relate to the poem and would routinely finish his letters with this particular poem. Sorry for the confusion.

  • Reply April 13, 2010

    Alexis

    I feel really sorry for him. I have not seen any of his movies or listened to the music about him. I wish I was born in that time to meet him. Thank you for writing this article about him. I read about him all the time.

  • Reply April 24, 2010

    RHONDA

    I DID WATCH THE MOVIE OF JOHN MERRICK, I WAS REAL SHOCKING ABOUT THIS. I CANNOT BELIEVE IT, BUT IT IS TRUE. IT MADE ME GET VERY SAD AND FEEL BAD FOR HIM. WE KNOW, GOD ALWAYS TAKE A CARE OF HIM FOR GOOD. HE WAS AT HOME IN VERY WONDERFUL HEAVEN AND NO MORE PAIN. WE KNOW, THEY WILL ALWAYS LOVE HIM ALSO US TOO. WE ALWAYS MISS HIM ALOT SINCE HE WAS TOO YOUNG MAN, 27 AGE. HE WAS PASSED AWAY. I SAW THE INTERNET HAS SOME PICTURES OF HIM. IT MADE ME GET VERY SAD AND POOR HIM. BUT HE IS IN HEAVEN AND HE IS HEAL HEALTH NOW. WE ALWAYS LOVE HIM

  • Reply May 2, 2010

    Rebecca

    I admire Joesph for being such a strong individual. When I have those days where I feel unfortunate, I look to this man and realize that my life isn’t as tragic as I make it out to be. He has faced many struggles and still managed to make it through. God Bless him.

    The Poem:
    “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.”

    Was not written by Joesph, is was written by Isaac Watts, Joesph was just very fond of this poem and would end his letters with is.

  • Reply May 16, 2010

    Amanda

    he was beautiful and so much more real than anyone ever could be

  • Reply May 18, 2010

    Aj

    has anyone read or watched the play about him written by Bernard Pomerance? its pretty good. Fredrick Treves is the one mainly responsible for the confusion of him being called John.

  • Reply June 14, 2010

    Chris

    I have never even heard of the Elephant Man until just recently while searching through a list of David Lynch films to indulge myself into.
    So I picked up a copy and decided to watch it and never in my entire life have I ever been compelled with so many conflicting emotions in my life…
    I have often been told I am a monster, not by physical illness or deformity, but by aggression and violence, I have been told I could not be deemed friendworthy for I take a strong dislike in Human Civilization, preferring the solace of being alone.
    But when I saw Joseph (Or John, whichever he would personally prefer) Merrick, I was instantly transformed, I spent two months learning everything I could on him, he became the one sole reason I feel human kindness still lives on, and now I find myself actually guilty that I wasn’t there to be a damn good friend to him when he needed it…
    If anyone deserves to be remembered for eternity, it is without a doubt Joseph Carey Merrick, and may God forever make him smile in his new room in Heaven.

    PS: If I was around back then I can assure you I would have laid a savage beating on quite a few of Merrick’s harrasser’s (But that is just me)

  • Reply June 22, 2010

    elephant man

    c’est très dur d’imaginer ce qu’il a éprouver tant d’années et je le ressens au fond de moi-même….et pourtant je n’ai pas malformations comme lui.C’est vraiment injuste,dees gens étaient méchants avec lui à cause de sa!!!Vous vous rendez compte!!Lui faire du mal parce qu’il a des malformations…je trouve sa honteux!!

  • Reply July 18, 2010

    Adeline

    A shame he never found his love before he died …We are always complaining that we are not beauty full enough , slim enough and all when there is people who have to stand others looking at them with disgust or bad curiosity every day …I wonder if you get used to it at some stage ?

  • Reply July 22, 2010

    Eleanor

    TRULY a remarkable man. He reminds me a bit of Edward scissorhands, no? If I met him I’d of been his friend.

  • Reply September 3, 2010

    dylan

    very touching story

  • Reply September 3, 2010

    dylan

    this story is very sad, but what even sadder. people still get this diorder today

  • Reply September 23, 2010

    brittany

    does anyone know where i can find a the elephant man costume?

  • Reply December 2, 2010

    Chen

    I just read a book about Joseph and I can honestly say I cannot wait to meet him. One day when my time comes I will meet him and im going to give him the biggest hug EVER. But just think in heaven no one is making fun of him or hurting him he can walk straight and normal and he dosent have to worry about NF getting in his way anymore Joseph is having a good time I just know it. And everyone knows how much he loved the ladies im sure he’s up there right now with Nurse Ireland and Dr.Treves and all of the others who loved dear Joseph

  • Reply December 8, 2010

    Nilsia

    Its a great site with true comments. He was truly a great example of humility, perseverance and love. There are so many people on the streets with normal appeareance who also need our help and kindness. Lets do it in remembrance of Joseph Merrick!

  • Reply March 10, 2011

    Mae

    Joseph’s birth certificate in Leicester gives his full name as Joseph Carey Merrick, born Aug. 5, 1862. Treves called him “John” in his medical articles and memoirs, which led to the confusion about his name. Joseph lived and suffered with dignity. He died well-loved at the London Hospital. Despite his terrible deformity, he was one of the most beautiful and courageous souls to grace this earth.

  • Reply May 9, 2011

    rae

    he is a great hero!! and i believe he is in heaven now in an absolutely gorgeous body. to shame with everyone that made fun of him!! i am mildly deformed in my face and disabled and i get made fun of tremendously and very cruel treatment for it. especially for how i look. imagine how badly people must have treated him if they treat me this badly and my deformities are much less severe than his. why God made him like this?? because, i think, this man is a particularly great soul, who withstood the great trial, who will be honored forever.

  • Reply June 19, 2011

    darren from adelaide

    what a movie! saw it years ago and still to this day is the only movie to bring tears to my eyes. What a wonderful person he was, would of been an honour to have met him

  • Reply June 22, 2011

    Some guy

    I watched the movie with a girl I was dating, and she had no reaction to it. My eyes where welling up but she was totally apathetic. I knew she was unfeeling and heartless at that moment. This man’s story and the movie are sad and wonderful all at once and if you’re not touched by it then you are void of humanity.

  • Reply July 17, 2011

    Chuck Kosidowski

    I to have watched the movie. Just simply an incredible person. To bad the movie is only half true. I can only wish I could have met this man.
    We should all look in the mirror and know how blessed we are. I can only hope that someday later in life I can meet this man. God bless him.

  • Reply July 17, 2011

    Chuck Kosidowski

    What I meant was after my life is over . I will meet this incredible
    person. God bless him…

  • Reply July 18, 2011

    Thomas

    Joseph Merrick inspires us all , he sounded like a great soul, he teaches us that others have bigger crosses to carry. I am so happy there are still people like Dr Treves who are there to help others whether it be people or animals that are helpless and less fortunate to care for themselves, I do this in my life everyday.

  • Reply July 31, 2011

    John Doe

    What sickens me about him is that he was endlessly harrassed by those children. ):

    I’m surprised he wasn’t recorded getting all physical with the taunters.

  • Reply August 11, 2011

    Kari

    Joseph was a wonderful person. I’ve read about him a lot and seen the film. My Mum and I have admired him for years after seeing the film about him. Mum lent me her biography of him- and one very touching description of Joseph telling Dr Treves he had never been in the countryside to walk around and tocuh and smell flowers (which he longed for) I found very moving. One of Joseph’s friends- a kind wealthy lady arranged for him to stay in a cottage in the country for a 6 week holiday, which of course he loved.

  • Reply November 2, 2011

    Nick

    i bet he was an awesome person. but he looks nothing like an elephant.

  • Reply November 18, 2011

    Briana

    He had a surgery to remove a protrusion of bone from his upper lip around the time he was in the workhouse. That, along with the story (and the belief in maternal impression) that his mother was maul by an elephant while pregnant with him contributed to the title “The Elephant Man.”

    My theater company just started rehearsals for Bernard Pomerance’s play. We’re called PHAMALy, the Physically Handicapped Actors and Musical Artists League, located in Denver. Merrick was very lucky to have important benefactors, as are many members of this theater company. He was also very smart to have insight to put himself on display, another parallel with us.

    I’m one of the lucky ones. Physically astonishing in the opposite way, melting apart only on the inside. In addition to other roles, I play Princess Alexandra, a beautiful and charming woman who lived with hearing loss and frequent illnesses, one of which left her with a limp that was imitated by others as though it was fashionable! We all have our trials.

    If there is a heaven, Joseph Merrick isn’t up there with the body of Adonis. He has the body he was given, only everyone is okay with it.

  • Reply April 2, 2012

    Ro

    To me, Merrick stands for dignity, tolerance and that you shouldn’t judge people based on their disability. Merrick says that you should respect yourself even if others don’t because even through all the exploitation and violence. He shows that there is a there is more than meets the eye, because Mr. Bytes considered him as an imbecile and so did Mr. Treves, but the Elephant Man shows that he is even more “human” than others through acts of kindness and friendliness. Tolerance is another value shown by Merrick. Even though he is beaten and exploited he shows self-respect.

    Lili, you make a VERY good point. Thank you!!

  • Reply April 26, 2012

    Mae

    I’m glad to see so much compassion and admiration for Joseph Merrick. Though he was mistreeated for most of his life, he was never beaten by any “owners.” He chose to become a sideshow “oddity” to escape a hellish workhouse.
    To read more about Joseph, drop by http://www.josephcareymerrick.com
    Also, keep an eye out for a new book on Joseph’s life!

  • Reply May 19, 2012

    Krat

    I would like to read his poetry.

  • Reply June 23, 2012

    Sam

    Inspirational definitely. Obviously, he was an extraordinary man of great character, integrity and strength. But his story is also so important to everyone because it illuminates the existence of such pitiful hatred, misunderstanding and mockery of that which is different – within the human psyche itself. At the same time, as evidenced in the film, it also brought out the best in people. Joseph Merrick’s story asks people who they truly are inside and whether they are strong enough to stand up to and resist the primitive mob-like animosity that is still unquestionably part of humanity itself.

  • Reply June 28, 2012

    omar hosam

    I Luv that story , I cried cuz of this emotional Story Really In this Life There is the Cruel and there is the Kind and really the movie is very touching

  • Reply August 4, 2012

    Shawn Diemert

    I would have love to have met him.All the tragedy iin is life and mostly been alone in his short life must have been very difficult.He must have been a very strong willed man,and is more loved dead than alive.i wish that his bones were still on display at the Royal London Hospital because i believe it should be know as the 9 wonder of the world.

  • Reply August 4, 2012

    Shawn Diemert

    Also adding tomorrow is his birthday.Happy birthday John Merrick.Its kinda weird that i found this site and for him to be in my mind two hours before his birthday.unreal.

  • Reply March 24, 2013

    Roger Vivier Outlet

    Great and nice post thank you.

  • Reply April 12, 2013

    maria joffe

    Joseph Merrick was a humen man,thay had no right to treat him like the way thay did, its to bad people in those days just didnt understand,but its still wrong thay had to non better [come on] what the hell, you dont do things like that to no one ,treat with goodness.

  • Reply November 1, 2013

    Ruth

    This man really was amazing.
    He withstood criticism, probably insults, and jeers from the ignorants of society.
    Yet he lived a full and happy life.
    Now he is in heaven, but I believe he is even happier despite looking just the same because in God’s eyes, everyone is the same, and he loves all of us.
    If I were to choose one person to meet, it would be him!
    This man is an inspiration to us all.

  • […] term inspired designer Daan van den Berg to create this 3-D printed mutated IKEA lamp. Intrigued by Joseph Carey Merrick, whom is otherwise known as the ‘Elephant Man’, van den Berg hacked a 3-D printer so that […]

  • Reply February 11, 2014

    hj

    tyler cant spell write or sorry lol hes a dog

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