(Please note, this article contains images of ‘The Elephant Man’; Joseph Merrick and his deformities which some readers may find upsetting)
Joseph Merrick returns to the East End
Following his ordeal at Liverpool Street Station, Joseph Merrick was taken by cab to the Royal London Hospital.
Once there, he was examined thoroughly and Dr Treves discovered that, in the two years since they’d last met, the Elephant Man’s condition had grown worse. To compound his woes and despite being only in his 20s, Joseph had also developed a heart condition.
It became clear that his deformities were incurable, and that the severe complications and strains which they placed upon his body meant that Joseph only had few years left to live.
This posed a problem: Dr Treves and the staff at the Royal London were desperate to look after Joseph and ensure that his final years would be as comfortable as possible. However, the hospital was not equipped or permitted to deal with incurable patients. There was indeed a separate institution for terminal cases- but they wanted nothing to do with Joseph’s case.
Eager to resolve this problem, Francis Carr Gomm; chairman of the hospital’s committee, wrote a detailed letter to The Times newspaper, which was printed on the 4th December 1886.
In it, he outlined Joseph’s case and appealed for public donations.
Such an appeal had never been undertaken before.
As Carr Gomm himself stated in his letter, “some 76,000 patients a year pass through the doors of our hospital, but I have never before been authorized to invite public attention to any particular case, so it may well be believed that this case is exceptional.”
The plea was a huge success. The Victorian public dug deep and, in no time at all, enough money was raised to enable the Royal London to provide Joseph with a home for the rest of his life.
A new home in London
Now equipped with adequate funds, two rooms in a secluded section of the hospital were selected for Joseph’s personal use.
Overlooking a quiet courtyard known as ‘Bedstead Square’, the pair of rooms were skillfully converted into a little apartment for Joseph. The apartment was equipped with all the usual Victorian home comforts, including a fireplace and stout furniture (Joseph’s bed and armchair being custom-built to make his distressed body as relaxed as possible ).
At first, Joseph remained a shy and nervous figure.
Dr Treves noted that, whenever a stranger came to visit the Elephant Man, he would cower like a child and even shake visibly.
On one occasion, when he was introduced to a female guest- who took his hand, smiled naturally and made no mention of his deformities- Joseph broke down in tears, explaining that no woman (apart from his beloved mother who had died years before), had ever before treated him with such kindness.
However, as the weeks progressed, Joseph’s new found dignity and his popularity amongst the hospital’s staff began to draw him out of his shell, enabling his confidence to gradually develop.
No longer did people see him as a freak to gawp at. Instead, visitors enjoyed nothing more than popping by for a chat; those who did discovering that Joseph was a learned, sensitive, intelligent man, capable of conversing on a wide variety of topics. An avid reader, he also began to accumulate an impressive library.
Those who came to know Joseph were especially taken by his intellect, immense politeness, piety and overall gentle nature.
Joseph even had the pleasure of meeting the Prince (later to become King Edward VII) and Princess of Wales; an event which saw the young man beside himself with excitement.
The Royal pair were accompanied by Lady Geraldine Somerset, who recorded the event in her diary:
“The Elephant Man… he can never go out, he is mobbed so, & lives therefore a prisoner, he is less disgusting to see than might be, because he is such a gentle, kindly man….”
By all accounts, the Elephant Man never displayed any bitterness about his condition, accepting it with quiet resignation and good humour- for example, he once enjoyed a joke with a visiting surgeon, stating that he often wondered how he would appear when the time came for him to be preserved in a big bottle of alcohol!
Joseph was clearly under no illusion that, when he died, his body was destined to become a medical artefact.
During his time at the Royal London Hospital, Joseph also enjoyed constructing intricate, cardboard models; not an easy task considering his disabilities.
He would give these models as thank-you gifts to the numerous guests who took time to visit him (and who themselves presented him with gifts).
One such model survives to this day and can be seen in the Royal London Hospital’s small, but excellent museum and archive…
Constructed from a German craft-kit, this model church was given by Joseph to Mrs Madge Kendal; a popular actress who did much for the Elephant Man (in David Lean’s film version, Mrs Kendal was played by Anne Bancroft).
Joseph goes ‘Up West’
An anomaly of Joseph’s life was that, despite his intelligence, his condition dictated that he was rather naïve to the outside world; for it was a place which, after years spent in workhouses, penny-gaffs and hospital rooms, he’d had little chance to explore openly.
On the rare occasions he had ventured out of course, he’d done so swathed in disguise, and was more concerned with avoiding unwanted attention rather than examining what lay around him.
Joseph’s imagination was stoked by his extensive reading, and he became increasingly inquisitive of the world which lay beyond his hospital suite. One day, he told Dr Treves that he was keen to see a ‘real’ house (in other words, the kind of wealthy home which he’d read so much about in his large collection of novels).
Dr Treves therefore arranged to take Joseph to his own home, which was at number 6 Wimpole Street; the two friends travelling to Bloomsbury in Joseph’s preferred method of transport; the hansom cab.
Once at the Wimpole Street residence, Joseph was fascinated by every aspect of Dr Treves’s house, and spent much time going from room to room, examining everything from cups to curtains with a curiosity so intense it bordered on the comical.
He was, however, somewhat puzzled that there were no liveried footmen or servants in attendance; his expectations having being influenced somewhat by the work of his favourite writer; Jane Austen!
Joseph was also fascinated by the idea of the theatre and, one special evening during the Christmas of 1887, he was taken to see a pantomime; Puss in Boots at the Theatre Royal, Dury Lane in Covent Garden.
Unsurprisingly, Joseph’s trip to the theatre required much planning.
The main organisation was carried out by Madge Kendal, who arranged for Joseph to have his own private box.
The box in question belonged to Baroness Burdett-Coutts; one of the richest women in Victorian Britain and a prolific philanthropist (to this day, Coutts Bank still handle the Royal Family’s accounts).
Baroness Coutts had also been a close friend of Charles Dickens- in fact the same box which Joseph occupied during his night at the theatre had also been loaned to the great author and his family some years before.
For the performance, Joseph was brought to the theatre in his own private carriage. He was also permitted to use the secretive, Royal staircase, thus allowing him to maintain total privacy.
In the box, he was joined by his now close friend, Dr Treves, and a number of nurses from the Royal London Hospital.
The small group, all donned in their finest evening dress, sat and waited for the chatter to recede, the lights to dim and the curtain to rise… and, once the show commenced, Joseph quickly found himself in a state of utter joy.
Sitting in the absolute darkness, Joseph, for a few wonderful hours, was able to loose himself in fantasy; to forget his awful condition and sit amongst 100s of people without attracting a single stare.
His trip to the Covent Garden theatre was portrayed in the movie version of his life. As the following clip shows, this particularly moving scene demonstrates the pure delight and wonder which Joseph experienced that special night:
Following his trip the Theatre Royal, Joseph would talk to friends endlessly about the pantomime which had enthralled him for weeks afterwards, often becoming so enthused, that he would describe the pantomime characters as if they they were real beings rather than actors.
His evening spent at Covent Garden had clearly been one of the happiest, most liberating moments in his dreadfully harrowed life.
To ‘sleep like a normal person’…
As 1888 and 1889 wore on, Joseph’s condition began to deteriorate.
Thankfully though, he was granted further happiness when Dr Treves arranged for Joseph to spend six weeks at a private cottage in the countryside; an excursion which the Elephant Man had often dreamt of undertaking.
Whilst in the countryside, Joseph took delight in being able to wander outside in the sunshine without the need for his mask and cloak; picking flowers, listening to bird-song and observing wildlife.
An avid letter-writer, Joseph would keep his friend, Dr Treves updated about his observations.
Sadly, despite his prolific letter writing, only one example of Joseph’s correspondences is known to exist. It was addressed to Mrs Leila Maturin; the woman whose kindness and natural smile had caused him to weep on their first meeting.
Alongside his mask and model church, this rare and precious object can be viewed at the Royal London Hospital’s museum:
As the distressing disease wore on, Joseph’s body began to age rapidly.
When Dr Treves had first examined him only four years previously, the Elephant Man was, despite his deformities, clearly a young man in otherwise relatively good health.
However, by late 1888, Joseph was plagued by bronchitis and heart problems, and his advancing growths were beginning to take their cruel toll. Dr Treves was forced to witness his friend’s accelerating decline, helpless.
Shortly after the Easter of 1890, in which he’d happily been able to attend church services in the hospital’s chapel, Joseph Merrick died.
He was discovered at 1.30pm on the 11th April 1890, lying flat across his bed.
It is generally believed, as Dr Treves suggested, that Joseph died after attempting to lie down and sleep like a ‘normal person’; a desire which he had often expressed.
By this point, Joseph’s head had grown even larger, and the subsequent weight broke his neck, leading to a mercifully quick, painless death.
He was just 27 years old.
* * *
The actual condition which Joseph Merrick suffered from is still debated.
The common theory is that he suffered from ‘Neurofibromatosis Type 1’. Another belief is that the cause was ‘Proteus Syndrome’, whilst others suggest the Elephant Man’s condition was an unlucky combination of the two.
In 2003, the Discovery Health Channel screened a documentary entitled ‘The Curse of the Elephant Man’.
Collating information about Joseph, including existing photos, DNA samples, access to his skull and cooperation from living ancestors, the team behind the programme were able to create a computer generated image, which estimated what Joseph would have looked like had he not been struck down by the awful conditions which plagued his life…
To this day, Joseph Carey Merrick, the gentle, East Midland lad who became an adopted Londoner, continues to inspire people with his story, his tenderness and his humanity.
I will leave you with a poem, compiled by Joseph himself, which he often used to sign off the many letters he penned to supportive friends….
“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.”
(Many of the items related to Joseph Merrick’s life which are featured in this article can be viewed at the Royal London Hospital Museum; more information on which can be found here)
If you wish to learn more about Joseph Merrick, an excellent website can be found here