"Tis true my form is something odd, but blaming me is
Joseph Carey Merrick was born with a disease popularly thought to
be neurofribromotosis, or Proteus syndrome. Either way, he was blessed with rather
unattractive growths, and his body progressively became more and more deformed. He was
destined for a life of sadness and abuse, heaped on him rather generously by his family,
and the public. His only success at earning a wage was to travel in "freak
shows," popular in Victorian times. One of these traveling menageries came to rest
in a shop front across from the Royal London Hospital, in
Whitechapel Road, London.
Merrick caught the eye of Dr. Frederick Treves, a surgeon at the
hospital, who paid Joseph to come across the street to be studied by students.
The menagerie traveled on. Merrick managed to save a bit of money, only to be
stolen from him by the curator of the show. Merrick was stranded in Brussels.
to scrape together enough money for a train trip back to London, and upon his arrival at
Liverpool Street Station he collapsed in exhaustion.
One hundred and twenty years later - this happened in the very
same station. Coincidence? I think not.
Treves' business card was found
among his meager possessions, and a call was made to the Hospital. Treves went to claim
his friend, and offered him a home within the Royal London
Hospital grounds, where he would live out the rest of his life.
Merrick enjoyed a friendship, and it was Treves that took it upon himself to start
referring to Joseph as "John" in his memoirs. Who knows why. For a few
years Merrick enjoyed a happy life in a ground
floor flat, in an area of the hospital grounds called Bedstead Square.
The entrance of Merrick's flat has since been bricked up,
the interiors now house the hospital catering department, but the windows out which
Merrick would view the world are still there, hidden behind shelves of canned goods.
became a celebrity, even entertaining royalty.
Regarding Merrick's eventual demise, here is a quote direct from Treves diary: "he
was found dead in his bed He was lying on his back as if asleep, and had evidently
died suddenly and without struggle. The method of his death was peculiar. So large and
heavy was his head that he could not sleep lying down. The attitude he was compelled to
assume when he slept was very strange. He sat up in bed with his back supported by
pillows, his knees were drawn up, and his arms clasped round his legs, while his head
rested on the points of his bent knees. He often said to me that he wished he could lie
down to sleep 'like other people'. I think on this last night he must, with some
determination, have made the experiment. The pillow was soft, and the head, when placed on
it, must have fallen backwards and caused a dislocation of the neck. Thus it came about
that his death was due to the desire that had dominated his life - to be 'like other
This was on April 11th, 1890. He was 27 years old.
Official Cause of Death : Asphyxia and Suffocation
A funeral was held in the Chapel of the Hospital, and after the autopsy by Dr. Treves,
it was decided that his skeleton should be set up in the
He supervised the taking of plaster casts of the head and limbs and the
preservation of skin samples. To the frustration of future researchers, the skin samples
were lost during the Second World War. The jars containing them dried out in the absence
of staff who had been evacuated. Merrick's assembled skeleton still resides within the
walls of the hospital museum. Members of the public are not welcome.
Update April 2011 - from Findadeath friend
"I usually go to London every year and on
one trip, I tried to see Jospah. Prior to my trip I was in touch with a
very well now forensic anthropologist who had worked with the skeleton. On
his book he signed for me, he wrote, "Good Luck seeing Joseph."
I went to the London Hospital and they turned
me away immediately. I then called and asked for the pathology lab, and
the bloke who answered told me the skeleton was not on public display. I
then lied a bit saying that this well known forensic anthropologist told me to
stop by. He said, "Oh, you know Dr. _____, do you?" I
answered yes, and they let me in.
I spent an hour looking around the place. It's like one of the teaching
rooms where there are wooden bleachers and the exam table in front of
them. It seemed like an old horror movie."
So because of Mark, we can now have a color photograph (I've never seen one
before) of Merrick's remains, and of his death
mask. Thank you so much, Mark.
Update, January 2000, thanks to Findadeath.com friend
Casey for this info: Research (modern) has shown that the poor guy had Proteus Syndrome, which is extremely rare, but does exist to this day
(there are fewer than 900 cases known in the world). He did not have
neurofibromatosis, which is considerably more common and less disfiguring - NF causes tumors (usually small) to grow on the nerve endings, both on the
skin and inside the body. It is true that for years people did blame his disfigurement on NF, but that's been cleared up now. About one child in
every 4000 is born with this genetic disease... Someone I know has it, and is President of the
a chapter of the NF Foundation. The fastest way to piss off somebody who has NF is to call it "The Elephant Man's
Disease".. trust me on that one :)
September 2000 - Just another update. NF (neurofibromotosis
Type I) is or was called von Recklinghausen's Disease named for my great
grandfather Friedrich D. von Recklinghausen. The amount of disfigurement that
Merrick experienced was finally determined to be Proteus Syndrome, some time in
the late 80's or early 90's. - Friedrich M. von Recklinghausen
The Discovery Channel did a documentary about
John, and put together a computer simulation of what he may have looked like,
had he not been disfigured.