The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity

The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity - by Ashley Montagu Biographies Film Nineteenth Century Life Social Studies Victorian Age Famous People Legends and Legendary People

Joseph Carey Merrick (1862-1890) suffered from a debilitating, deforming condition.  It may have been neurofibromatosis, but tests have still proven inconclusive. 

As a result of his massive deformities, he was dreadfully mistreated and “put on display” in "freak shows."  His condition impacted his right side more than his left.

Despite his horrific treatment, at the hands of many, he maintained his grace and dignity until the end of his life.

He was called “The Elephant Man” and, during the fall of 1888, lived in a hospital in the Whitechapel area of London. 

This is his story.

When Joseph - who is sometimes mistakenly called “John” - was born in 1862, he appeared to be a healthy baby.  He and his parents, Joseph and Mary Jane Merrick, lived in Leicester, England.

Then ... as Joseph began to grow ... he developed a very unusual condition.  His skin became lumpy and grayish.  His parents thought such a strange thing happened because his mother had been knocked-over by a fairground elephant when she was expecting Joseph.  

At the time, no one was able to diagnose Joseph’s problem.  

Although he had a relatively normal life, as a child, Joseph’s body continued to produce more deformities.  One particularly noticeable problem was a bony lump on his forehead.  Despite these issues, Joseph attended school, just like other children his age.  He became particularly close to his mother, Mary Jane.

Joseph’s life changed, dramatically, when he was 11.  His mother developed bronchial pneumonia which could not be cured.  When she died, Joseph lost the person closest to him.

Children worked at an early age, in Victorian England, and Joseph was no exception.  When he was about 12, he left school to begin a life of labor.  By this time - one year after his mother’s death - his father had remarried.

Joseph’s deformities continued to grow, particularly impacting his right side.  For a few years he was able to roll cigars, to earn a living, but there came a time when his right hand could no longer do the job.  

He tried to help his father, by selling items in the haberdashery store, but by this time his deformities were even impacting his speech.  People couldn’t understand him and became frightened of him.

Unable to earn an income, Joseph faced more trouble when he was 17.  His father beat him for not bringing home enough money.  With no one to help him, and no good options to consider, Joseph left home for the Leicester Union Workhouse.

Four years in the workhouse convinced Merrick that he could not spend the rest of his life in such a place.  There was only one option for him.  

Since the 1600s, people in England had attended traveling fairs which featured not only animals and circus acts but also humans with deformities.  Perhaps, Merrick thought, he could earn a living at such a place.

As it happened, there was a shop on Whitechapel Road - in London - which featured “human oddities.”  Joseph moved to London, in 1884, to be part of that display where he was known as "Half-a-Man and Half-an-Elephant."

The shop was directly across the street from the London Hospital.  Because Joseph’s condition was so unusual, doctors were intrigued to see him.  Frederick Treves, who was a surgeon, asked Joseph if he’d like to be examined at the hospital.

We know what Dr. Treves found because he wrote a book about Merrick.  Some of his findings and measurements included these:

  • Joseph’s head circumference was 36 inches
  • His right-wrist circumference was 12 inches
  • One of his fingers was 5 inches around
  • Joseph’s skin was covered with warty growths
  • The largest warty growth smelled very bad
  • Joseph’s right hip seemed to be lame

Otherwise, Merrick was in generally good health.

Intrigued by his patient’s highly strange condition, Treves made a presentation to the Pathological Society of London.  Joseph was, essentially, an exhibit in that presentation.

Feeling “like an animal in a cattle market,” Joseph declined more exams and more presentations.  Since “freak shows,” as they were known, were no longer in favor by 1885, London police officers shut-down the “Elephant Man” exhibit.

Joseph, once again, had no way to earn a living and no place to live.  His “managers” sent him on a tour of Europe, but he was treated dreadfully.  After he was robbed, beaten and abandoned, Joseph returned to London (in 1886).

When police found Joseph, they couldn’t understand him.  However, they found a business card which Frederick Treves had given to Merrick.  Treves thought the London Hospital was the best place for Joseph to live.

By this time, Joseph’s condition had become even worse.  The problem facing hospital administrators, however, was Merrick’s incurable condition.  Hospitals are meant to help people get well.  Joseph would never get well.

Francis Carr Gomm, then chairman of the London Hospital committee, tried to find another place for Joseph to live.  No one wanted him.

Gomm wrote an open letter to the Times, outlining Merrick’s plight.  The public responded, in overwhelming ways.  People of means agreed to provided financial support for Joseph if the London Hospital would allow him to live there for the rest of his life.  Even Alexandra, the Princess of Wales, visited Joseph.

Just living a normal life was something Merrick longed-for.  With the help of his supporters, he was able to visit the theater and to even take vacations in the country.  With a safe place to live, he could write (both prose and poetry) and began building a church made of playing cards.

He loved to write letters and often ended them with a poem by Isaac Watts, entitled False Greatness:

'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 lived under the care of Treves and the London Hospital four years.  With each passing year, he deteriorated.  The facial deformities, which had plagued him for so long, grew worse.  So did his head, which kept enlarging.

On the 11th of April, 1890, Joseph Merrick died.  The cause of death was asphyxia because his heavy head had literally suffocated him while he was was lying down.  He was 27 years old.

Still popular, the story of "The Elephant Man" was first published, in book form, by Sir Frederick Treves (his doctor) in 1923.  It makes for a fascinating read.

The book depicted above has been the basis of a play and an award-winning movie starring Anthony Hopkins (as Dr. Treves) and John Hurt (in a stunning performance as Joseph Merrick).  The following video is the film's trailer.

In one of the film's most difficult-to-watch scenes, John Hurt (as Joseph Merrick) has to deal with a crowd of people who treat him with unfathomable cruelty. Through it all, Merrick—despite his fear—maintains his courage and dignity.

What Joseph needed was kindness and understanding. What he received, in this scene, was ridicule and humiliation.

There are life lessons to be learned from such a man who, despite his outwardly appearance, understood what it was to be a human being marked by grace and dignity.

Merrick, the real-life character, was portrayed by an actor of stunning talent—John Hurt—who, himself, lived a life of courage and humility. Sir John died, after a difficult battle with pancreatic cancer, on January 25, 2017. He was 77 years old.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5183stories and lessons created

Original Release: Jun 14, 2016

Updated Last Revision: Nov 13, 2019

Media Credits

Book-cover image online, courtesy Amazon. Fair use for educational purposes.


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"The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity" AwesomeStories.com. Jun 14, 2016. Nov 13, 2019.
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