Imagine, as a new parent, having a beautiful and healthy baby boy. Now imagine, at age five, your child’s appearance changing in gruesome ways.
His once perfect lips swell up. His pink skin thickens and turns a sickly gray hue. A mysterious lump emerges from his forehead. A sack of flesh bubbles from the back of his neck. Both feet grow abnormally large. His right arm grows increasingly deformed and gnarled, while his still perfectly normal left arm only highlights his transformation into what the world will perceive as a human monstrosity.
Joseph and Mary Jane Merrick experienced this agony with their firstborn.
It’s 1866 in Leicester, England. Medically, no one knows what is happening to your baby. So, think back. You recall the time you were pregnant and went to the fair. An unruly crowd of people pushed you into an oncoming animal parade. An elephant rears up and you’re briefly caught underfoot, suddenly frightened for two lives. You tell your child that this is why his body is deforming before his own eyes, why he doesn’t look like the other kids, why he is experiencing such grotesque pain.
This is the story that young Joseph Merrick, who would later be referred to as “The Elephant Man,” heard from his parent’s lips. He believed it was the cause of all of his physical problems until his dying day.
Merrick’s extremely deformed body wasn’t even the only heartbreak to befall him in his short life of 27 years. He injured his hip as a child and a subsequent infection made him permanently lame. His mother, with whom he was close, died of pneumonia when he was just 11 years old. Tragically, among all of his other tragedies, he called her death “the greatest misfortune of my life.”
It was around this time that he quit school as the anguish from others’ teasing over his appearance and now his mother’s absence was too much to bear. But how would a boy like this, a boy who described his own face as “…such a sight that no one could describe it,” survive in such a cruel world?
As if Joseph Merrick’s life wasn’t melancholy enough, he soon encountered his very own “evil stepmother.” Her arrival occurred only 18 months after his mother’s death. Merrick later wrote, “She was the means of making my life a perfect misery.” His father withdrew affection as well, and so the misshapen boy was essentially alone. He couldn’t even run away. The few times he tried, his father brought him right back.
If he was not at school, his stepmother demanded, then he should be bringing home income. So, at age 13, Merrick worked at a cigar rolling shop. He worked there for three years, but his worsening hand deformity affected his performance.
Now 16 and without a job, Joseph Merrick wandered the streets during the day, looking for work. If he returned home during the day for lunch, his stepmother would taunt him, telling him that the half meal he got was more than he’d earned.
Merrick then tried to sell goods door to door from his father’s shop, but his contorted face made his speech unintelligible. His appearance frightened most, enough to make them refrain from opening their doors. Finally, his frustrated father severely beat him and he left home permanently.
Merrick’s uncle heard about his nephew’s homelessness and took him in. He eventually had his hawking license revoked, as he was seen as a menace to the community. After two years, his uncle couldn’t afford to support him anymore. The now 17-year-old boy left for the Leicester Union Workhouse.
Here, Joseph Merrick spent four years with other men ages 16 to 60. He hated it and realized that his only escape might be peddling his deformity as a novelty act.
So, he wrote to local proprietor Sam Torr. After a visit, Torr agreed to take Merrick on tour as a traveling act. He secured him a management team, and in 1884, the “half man, half elephant” began his “freak show” career. He toured Leicester, Nottingham, and London. Then Merrick switched management when Tom Norman, an East London shop owner that displayed human oddities, took him in.
With Norman, he was given an iron bed with a curtain for privacy, while on display in the back of a vacant shop. Upon seeing how Merrick slept — sitting, his legs drawn up and used as a headrest — Norman realized Merrick wasn’t able to sleep lying down. The weight of his enormous head could crush his neck.
Norman stood outside, using his natural showmanship to usher people into the shop to see Joseph Merrick. He assured the eager crowds that the Elephant Man was “not here to frighten you but to enlighten you.” The show was moderately successful. Merrick set aside his cut of the profits to hopefully buy his own house someday.
Norman’s shop was just across the road from London hospital where Dr. Frederick Treves worked. Curious, Treves went to see Merrick by appointment before the shop opened. Horrified, but still curious, he asked if he could take “The Elephant Man” to the hospital for an examination.
“His head was the most interesting thing. It was very, very big – like an enormous bag with a lot of books in it.” Treves later wrote.
Over the course of a few visits, Treves took some notes and measurements. Eventually, Merrick got tired of being poked and prodded in the name of science. Treves gave Merrick his calling card and sent him on his way.
But by now, “freak shows” were falling out of favor. Police closed down shops on account of morality and decency concerns. Just as Merrick was finally making money, he was shuttled by his Leicester managers to continental Europe in hopes of finding more lenient laws. In Belgium, his new area manager stole all Merrick’s money and abandoned him.
Stranded in a strange place, Joseph Merrick didn’t know what to do. Eventually, he boarded a ship for Harwich in Essex. He then caught a train for London — a broke man with a broken body.
Arriving at London’s Liverpool station, exhausted and still homeless, he asked strangers for help returning to Leicester. The police saw the crowds gathering around the disheveled man and detained him. One of the only possibly identifying possessions Merrick had was Dr. Treves card. The police called him up, and Treves immediately picked him up, took him to the hospital, and made sure that he was washed and fed.
After another examination by Treves, he determined that Merrick now also suffered from a heart condition. He likely had only a few years of life left in his now further deteriorated body.
The chairman of the hospital committee then wrote an editorial in The Times, asking the public for suggestions about where Joseph Merrick could stay. What he received was donations for care. Lots of them. The London hospital now had funds to care for Merrick for the rest of his life.
In the hospital basement, two adjacent rooms were specially adapted for him. There was access to the courtyard, and no mirrors to remind him of his appearance. Over his last four years spent in the hospital’s care, he enjoyed his life more than he ever had before.
Treves visited him almost daily and became used to his speech impediment. He found Merrick’s intellect to be completely normal. Though he was wholly aware of the unfairness that filled his existence, he bore little ill will towards the world that had shrunk away from him in disgust.
Thus far, Merrick never met a woman who didn’t cower at the sight of him. Treves knew the one and the only female in his life was his mother.
So, the doctor arranged a meeting for him with a young, attractive woman named Leila Maturin. Treves outlined the situation and briefed her on Merrick’s deformities. The meeting made Merrick instantly emotional. It was the first time that a woman had smiled at his or shook his hand.
Despite acquiring some semblance of a real life these last years, Merrick’s health had steadily declined. The deformities on his face as well as his entire head had continued to grow. A hospital employee found him dead in his bed on April 11, 1890.
But an autopsy revealed a surprising cause of death. Joseph Merrick died doing something we all take for granted, in an attempt to simply be normal. He died from asphyxia and had suffered a dislocated neck. He’d tried to sleep lying down.