Born Joseph Carey Merrick on August 5, 1862, the Elephant Man is far better known by his freak name. His life was brief and tragic, marred by loss, rejection, and an ever worsening disfigurement.
Needless to say, there are dozens of sad facts about the man and his life to choose from, but here are 10 of the saddest.
10. His Mother Died When He was Young
Merrick saw two of his siblings die, one when he himself was under 2 but the other when he was 8. Both of them were brothers, but his sister Marion was also very ill throughout her life.
Nevertheless, aside from his deformities, which appeared at 20 months and gradually worsened, he had a relatively stable childhood… at first. His family was poor but his mother Mary Jane was supportive and loving toward Merrick, sending him to school to ensure as normal a life as possible. She also instilled in him a love of books and a strong Christian faith, both of which would serve him well throughout his short life.
Merrick always talked fondly of her. And he often recalled a story she told him about how he got his condition. While pregnant with him, she said, she’d been frightened by an elephant in Leicester and this gave rise to his deformities. Ultimately, she may have been the first and last person to truly and selflessly care for him.
So it was “the greatest misfortune” of his life when she died from bronchial pneumonia aged 36. At the time he was only 11.
9. He Father Constantly Abused Him
After the tragic loss of Mary Jane, Merrick’s father Joseph married Emma Wood Antill – herself a widow and a strict one at that. Insisting that the boy earn his own way, she pulled him out of school and sent him to work at a cigar factory. But employment wasn’t easy for Merrick, especially as his condition worsened. Soon, his right hand was just too big and unwieldy to actually roll the tobacco.
He fared no better working as a door to door gloves salesman for his father. It was an easier gig but he ended up scaring the customers – despite covering his head with a burlap sack and cap.
His home life, already unpleasant, continued to worsen. Whenever he came home empty-handed, his father would beat him savagely and his stepmother would taunt and sneer, begrudgingly giving him small portions at dinner and telling him “that’s more than you have earned.”
At 15-years-old, he could take no more and left home to live on the streets. Although he was taken in by his uncle Charles, with whom he lived for around two years, it ultimately proved too much of a financial burden. And when Merrick’s hawker’s (salesman’s) license was finally revoked for terrorizing the community with his appearance, he had no choice but to enter the workhouse.
8. He Was Forced to Live in a Workhouse
Victorian workhouses were unpleasant, to say the least, and the last resort for young unemployables like Merrick. Essentially they were prisons, with inmates confined to highly compartmentalized dormitories and schedules. The work itself was really just to keep the workhouse going – jobs like portering, feeding the pigs, and dealing with waste.
Space was severely limited, the grounds were surrounded by unscalable walls, and there were no recreational diversions – just two 5-hour shifts of work, basic meals, lots of prayers, and cramped, uncomfortable sleep.
Merrick would have found himself living in these squalid conditions with the diseased and clinically insane. He left soon after he arrived to look for work but was ultimately forced to return, destitute, and stayed for a long three years.
It was in this deplorable environment that he was also subjected to surgery. According to his own account, three or four ounces of flesh were cut away from his face. Finally, it struck him to join a freak show and he wrote to the local entertainer Sam Torr, who introduced him around to others.
7. His Only Viable Profession was Deemed Immoral
When Merrick was discovered by freak show manager Tom Norman in 1884, he appeared to have finally found a sense of belonging, not to mention empowerment after his stint at the workhouse. While it might seem degrading to us now, appearing in a “human oddity” exhibition allowed freaks to earn a decent living and recover some self respect. In fact, Merrick ended up earning more than Norman did. He also maintained his dignity by refusing to pass around a collection hat after the show, remarking to his manager: “We are not beggars are we, Thomas?”
So it was that the Elephant Man traveled around with the likes of Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, Krao the Missing Link, and Herr Unthan the Armless Wonder. And perhaps for the first time since the death of his mother, he even appeared to be happy. He also managed to save more than £50, equivalent to more than £5,000 ($6,600) today and a substantial sum for any working class man back then.
Unfortunately, by this time freak shows had largely fallen out of favor with the public. Even in Europe, where attitudes were different and where Merrick earned most of his money, the tide was beginning to turn. Eventually the police shut his freak show down and the Elephant Man, again rootless, spent two years wandering the continent.
Ironically, when he returned to London, donations to finance his stay at the London Hospital were solicited through a newspaper campaign decrying the immorality of freak shows.
6. He Often Signed His Letters with the Same Sad Poem
Merrick enjoyed writing and wrote his own brief autobiography to sell as a souvenir at freak shows.
He also wrote many letters, including to Dr. Frederick Treves while visiting the countryside from London. Among other things, he described bird calls and wildlife, as well as his pride at having made friends with a noisy, frightening dog. Delighting in his natural surroundings, he also pressed wild flowers between the pages of his notes before sending them.
Characteristic of Merrick’s letters was the inclusion of a sad yet strangely uplifting poem, which he often signed off with. It read:
‘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.
According to his biographers, Michael Howell and Peter Ford, the poem was written by the hymn writer Isaac Watts. However, as pointed out by Jeanette Sitton of the Friends of Joseph Carey Merrick society, the first four lines don’t actually appear in the original and were probably written by Merrick.
5. He Passionately Aspired to Be Normal
While under the care of Dr. Treves at the London Hospital, Merrick often expressed his desire to live like ‘normal’ people. That’s hardly surprising, of course, but some of his more specific requests were. One Christmas, for example, he asked for a “dressing bag with silver fittings,” something fashionable in which to organize his otherwise scant possessions – his “monstrous cap and cloak,” as Treves put it, and a few other clothes. According to the doctor’s memoirs, Merrick took pride in the bag when he got it.
He also expressed the desire for a lover, spending much of his time engrossed in love stories. And while Treves couldn’t easily fulfill this request — though Merrick himself suggested they try a hospital for the blind – he did arrange for Merrick to meet a woman.
This was the young widow Leila Maturin, who apparently became the first woman ever to smile at him, and even to shake his hand. After their meeting, they kept in touch with letters and Maturin sent him gifts of grouse and a book.
4. He Would Have Been Handsome
Looking at photographs of the Elephant Man, you can’t help but wonder what he might have looked like if he wasn’t deformed. A team of scientists working to identify the cause of his affliction did, too, and through genetic analysis, they may have found out.
And looking into his eyes, it’s easy to imagine a quintessentially Victorian courtship blossoming between he and the young Miss Maturin.
3. He Supposedly Died Trying to Be Normal
Merrick was found dead in his hospital bed on April 11, 1890, aged just 27-years-old. By this time his head had become too large for him to comfortably hold up.
A surgeon recorded the official cause of death as asphyxiation, believing the sheer weight of his head had finally crushed his windpipe. But Dr. Treves disagreed. Much later on in his memoirs, he suggested that his friend had probably broken his own neck accidentally while trying to sleep “like normal people.” He was led to this belief by the fact that Merrick was found lying down on his hospital bed, and not in his usual upright sleeping position.
Whatever the truth, it was almost as though Merrick knew the end was near. The previous Sunday, he attended two early morning church services instead of his customary one.
2. His Best Friend Got His Name Wrong
Between Hollywood and Broadway, some big names have played the Elephant Man over the years. John Hurt, David Bowie, Mark Hamill, and Bradley Cooper have all brought Merrick to life.
But almost as if to add insult to injury, his name has usually been wrong. Instead of his real name, Joseph, scripts always refer to him as John. For his part, the playwright Bernard Pomerance, who first fictionalized Merrick, acknowledged the mistake; in the play, Dr. Treves and the head of the London Hospital disagree over whether Merrick is a John or a Joseph.
But the origin of his being referred to as John in the first place is the sadder part of the tale. It was Dr. Treves, Merrick’s one true friend until the end of his life, who first got his name wrong in his memoirs. Apparently after 33 years, the old surgeon had simply forgotten – assuming he knew in the first place.
1. Even His Remains are Exhibited
Exhibited throughout his life, it seems a cruel injustice for Merrick’s skeleton to remain on display. At least, that’s how Valerie Howkins, granddaughter of Merrick’s first manager Tom Norman, sees it. According to her, his flesh was stripped from his bones against his will following his death in 1890, so that he could be mounted in a glass cabinet as a spectacle.
On this basis, Howkins has led a campaign to have the skeleton returned to Leicester and buried “with dignity.” After all, as his childhood home where he lived with his mother, it may have been the last place he was truly happy.
However, the Queen Mary University of London, the custodian of Merrick’s remains, has refused to cooperate. According to them, he expected to be preserved after his death. Also, there are concerns about the security of the skeleton were it to be buried at the proposed Welford Road Cemetery site with his mother.
While it’s questionable that a devout Christian like Merrick would have allowed his remains to be exhibited, in truth only medical students and professionals are allowed to see the bones – and then only as part of their training. According to a university spokesman, the purpose of viewing the skeleton is essentially to help the students feel pity.