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The Sad Story of John Merrick, The Elephant Man

Most of us have heard of, read about or even seen the film “The Elephant Man,” a sad portrayal of a deformed man’s anguish. To even try to comprehend this intelligent, sensitive man’s suffering has to be beyond most of our capabilities.

John (Joseph) Merrick was born at 50 Lee Street, Leicester on August 5th 1862 to Mary Jane and Joseph Merrick. Born into an age of ignorance, John lived with his Mother, younger brother Arthur, and sister Marion, until John’s Mother died in 1873, leaving John with an uncaring Father who didn’t really want him around.

To make matters even worse for John, his Father remarried a woman who saw John as nothing but an embarrassment and who eventually offered the ultimatum of “It’s either him or me.” John was forced to work selling shoe-black on the streets, a chore that left him an open target to scores of children who taunted him for amusement.

On December 29th 1879, John Merrick was admitted to the Leicester Workhouse which he left after 6 weeks only to return a few days later because he was destitute. For the most part, John was unemployable, but he was prepared to do anything to earn money. Having pride that far outweighed his deformity, John could write and speak eloquently and he could also read, a rarity amongst the poorer classes of the 19th century.

John was also noted for his wonderful imagination and despite his dignified attitude, he was often charmingly childlike. With his manners equal to, and often better than most English gentlemen, his deformity resolved to keep all social and employment doors closed to him.

Desperate to take any job that would earn him a living, John Merrick left the workhouse in 1884 and took a job as a side-show freak. His manager, who was actually depicted in the movie as having kidnapped and beaten him, was not the barbarian he was portrayed as. Instead, Tom Norman took Merrick under his wing and treated him with great care and respect.

Having done rather well with Norman, John moved to London and found himself a home, a home in Bedstead Square, London. Merrick caught the interest of Frederick Treves, a surgeon at Whitechapel Hospital. Treves visited John in November 1884 and expressed a scientific interest in him. This led to Treves presenting Merrick to two different medical societies before sending John back on his way.

In early June 1886, John Merrick lost all of his hard earned money when he was robbed and abandoned by an Austrian showman while in Brussels, Belgium. Destitute once more, John arrived back in London and was admitted to Whitechapel Hospital to be treated for exhaustion, malnutrition and bronchitis.

Treves’ work with Merrick had brought attention to his plight from all over Britain and Europe. All kinds of assistance and large amounts of money were offered to ensure that John had a permanent home. Pressure was placed on the Whitechapel hospital to give this “Child of England” an indefinite home. Finally, when the British Royal Family became involved, the hospital agreed to reverse it’s policy of never offering beds to those with incurable diseases, and allowed John to stay in a side annex of the hospital. There John stayed until his death at 1.30 p.m. Friday April 6th 1890, he died of asphyxiation.

John suffered a great deal of torment during his lifetime, probably even more intensely felt because of his sensitive and intelligent nature. Therefore, it is somewhat comforting to know that England finally decided to take care of it’s own and that John died in a dwelling where he finally felt safe, the only ‘true’ home he had ever known.

Merrick’s skeleton remains on display at the London Hospital. Treves went on to achieve immense success. After being appointed Court Physician by Queen Victoria, in 1901 he was Knighted by King Edward VII.

There is some controversy surrounding the illness that Merrick actually suffered from. It is actually stated that John did not suffer from the genetic disorder which came to be known as “Elephant Man Disease.” In fact, recent studies of Merrick’s remains have confirmed theories that Merrick was the victim of a much rarer disease named Proteus Syndrome which has only been recorded in fewer than 100 cases ever.

“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 read by John.

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