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.
A Poem often quoted by Joseph
The Elephant Man
Joseph Merrick was born on August 5th. 1862 at 50 Lee Street, Leicester. John lived with his Mother (Mary Jane Merrick); younger brother (William Arthur) and sister (Marion Eliza) during his childhood. Mary first noticed that her child was different a few years after Merrick was born. Enlargement of the skull, right arm and feet became steadily worse as he grew older, Merricks skin grew loose and rough in texture, his arm and feet more horribly twisted and his head abnormal is size and shape. Merricks speech was effected by a bony mass that grew and protruded from his upper lip making it hard for him to speak. Merrick became more and more isolated from his fellow children at school, his crippled leg stopping him joining in the children's games. It was hard enough for him to walk on even surfaces, but cobble stones were a real hazard. John's form was a source of great amusement for the scores of children that would follow him from street to street, taunting him and calling out cruel names. His Mother died on 19th May 1873 of bronchial-pneumonia when Joseph was just 11.
Soon after his father remarried Emma Wood Antill a widow who was their landlady at the time. The marriage was to become a nightmare for Merrick as Emma never took to him, she had children of her own who were as Merrick stated 'much more handsome than he was'. Merrick would each day hobble around town looking for a job, his appearance doing him no favours. His stepmother did not help his search by constantly nagging and making remarks, she made Merricks life a misery. Merricks father finally intervened and got him a job selling goods from door to door. As you can imagine Merricks appearance at the time was quite horrific, this did not help the response he received when trying to sell his goods, many people slammed doors or ran terrified and the people who knew who he was would refuse to even answer their doors. When this failed his father started to beat him, he then left his home and wandered the streets selling what ever he could to afford scraps of food or basic lodgings. In later life, Merrick was most of the time unemployable, destitute and stripped of all his self-worth by the ignorance of the people of the day, John (Joseph) was prepared to take any job that would offer him a crust. As a last resort he took a job as a side-show 'freak'. The entrepreneur Tom Norman, who took Merrick under his wing. Tom treated Merrick with great care and respect when they were working together. Merrick was after all a 'performer' in a lucrative field of 'entertainment' The experience left him rather well off (he'd amassed some £200)
During this time that the following events occurred: Sir Frederick Treves was told of Merrick who was being exhibited across the road from the London Hospital, he arranged a private viewing and finally layed eyes on Merricks. Treves then arranged to examine Merrick in the confines of the London Hospital which he did over the following week. It is during this time that Treves gives Merrick his business card to allow Merrick smooth passage into the Hospital, this card would become vital in bringing Treves and Merrick back together again. Treves then lost track of Merrick for 2 years.
Soon the Freakshows in London were closed down and the police started to become more proactive. John was out of work until he is taken to Belgium with an Italian Freakshow owner who best knows the foreign Sideshow industry, the showman robbed him blind of Merricks savings of £50 and leaves him alone with no way home in a foreign land. This must of been most disturbing for Merrick as he had trouble getting people to understand his speech at the best of times let alone abroad. Merrick though was resourceful in this terrible situation and pawned the few belongings he had to pay for the journey back to London. When he finally arrived at Liverpool Street station clad in his black cape and hood to cover his deformed face. A crowd gathered to see this strangest of sights limping down the station. The police took him in custody. Merrick's speech was unintelligible, but he had a card with the name Frederick Treves on it. . The police quickly sent for Treves. Treves took John and put him in the hospital in an isolated attic room, and began to look for a way to care for the man.
Treves wrote to a local newspaper detailing the deformities and asking for donations to aid Merrick, within a week they had collected enough money to look after Merrick for Life. Hospitals had the policy to never offer their beds to those with incurable illnesses or diseases. A permanent home was what was needed. Through Treves' work with Merrick, they had both become quite a celebrity. Philanthropists and well-doers from every corner of Britain and Europe were writing in to the Whitechapel Hospital (London Hospital), offering all kinds assistance, in addition, large amounts of money were offered to look after John (Joseph). Enormous pressure was placed on the Whitechapel Hospital to give this 'Child of England' a permanent home. In was only once the British Royal family became involved that the hospital finally agreed to allow him to stay indefinitely in a side annexe of the hospital. John would often ask when he would be moved suggesting a move to a blind hospital where no one could see his deformities and could form relationships not based on his appearance.
Treves and Merrick became friends as Treves began to understand Merrick's speech patterns. In fact, once Merrick's plight became known, people of note all over the city came to meet with and welcome him. He grew a library and spent most of his time reading and visiting with people. Treves knew that for Merrick to become as normal a human being as possible he would need to form relationships with other people, women were considered more important than men as it was women who were most frightened of him and who he had an almost adoring attitude towards. The only woman in Merricks life was his mother and the characters in the Romance novels he read so enthusiastically. Treves knew of a pretty widow who he asked if she would enter Merricks room shake him by the hand and smile, a simple task if it were not for Merricks terrible appearance. This she accomplished but not with the expected response, Merrick broke down in tears after she greeted him later telling Treves that she was the 1st woman in his whole life except for his mother who had showed him any kindness.
From that day onwards Treves witnessed a great change in Merrick, he was
getting a vast amount of letters and visits from many well to do women who
all welcomed him with kindness. This was a drastic change as Merrick who once
hid behind his sheets whenever someone entered his room was now meeting with
Duchesses and Countesses. He became more and more confident and less aware
of his appearance (something Treves puts down to the absence of mirrors in
his house). The highlight of Merricks life was probably a visit from the Princess
of Wales who took him warmly by the hand and talked to him as a friend. She
visited Merrick on many occasions sending him many letters and even a signed
photo which Merrick held as some kind of sacred item allowing no-one but himself
to touch. Merrick had a childlike imagination and would imagine that he was
a handsome gentleman about town or the hero in one of his romance novels.
Again, Merrick had the desire to move to a Blind hospital, possibly due to
the slight chance of winning a woman's love unhindered by his deformed appearance.
Merrick would often tell Treves that he was 'Happy every hour of every day'
something that must of pleased Treves greatly.
In April of 1890 Merrick was found dead in his bed at Bedstead Square. He had seemingly died in his sleep the weight of his head had dislocated his neck. Merrick could not sleep as normal people do, he would sleep sitting up his back supported by pillows with his arms clasped around his knees. He would rest his large heavy head on his knees. Merrick had slept like this throughout most of his life. Treves supposes in his book The Elephant Man and other Reminiscences that Merrick had died due to the desire that haunted his entire life. He had attempted to sleep as normal people do and this had finally killed him His whole life was dominated by the desire to be "Just like other people".