Joseph Merrick kept his hideous face hidden behind a burlap sack. Another thing that’s hidden is his actual real life story. Don’t trust the movie—the truth is even more astonishing.
1. He Was Flawed
We all know the story of poor disfigured Joseph Merrick who, as the “Elephant Man” lived a sad existence in Freak Shows. But few people know the entire startling tale. The story goes that unsavory scoundrels put Merrick on display. The true story of Joseph Merrick is far more complicated.
2. Everything Seemed A-Okay
August 5, 1862 marks the birth of Joseph Carey Merrick in Leicester, England. It was a working class existence where Dad toiled in a warehouse, and mom worked as a servant. Mom, however, had a secret. She covered up a physical disability that only affected her and her daughter Marion. As far as Joseph went, he was happy and healthy.
Sadly, his life would soon take a baffling and tragic turn for the worse.
3. He Began To Change
Around Merrick’s second birthday, mom and dad noticed something wrong with their son’s lips. They had become quite swollen. Maybe not such a big deal, but worrying nonetheless. The next thing that happened the parents couldn’t easily explain away. A large disfiguring lump mysteriously appeared on Merrick’s forehead.
But while the Merricks were dealing with little Joseph, a far worse problem was about to catch them completely unaware.
4. He Had A Sad Christmas
The Merricks didn’t have much time to care for Joseph, because their other son had horrible problems of his own. In December, 1870, Merrick’s younger brother William came down with scarlet fever. It was a sad holiday season for the Merrick family. They buried William on Christmas Day.
Maybe the Merricks hoped that Joseph would grow out of his mysterious ailments. Nope, his brutal transformation was just beginning.
5. He Got Worse
Sister Marion Merrick's physical disability was going to have to take a back seat as Joseph’s situation deteriorated. By the age of five, his skin became thick and lumpy. Worse still, it even changed color. Some people described it as looking like the skin of an elephant.
This gave mom and dad a bizarre idea. They suddenly knew exactly what was causing their son’s terrible condition—and it was not what you think.
6. It Threw Her To The Ground
Their child was transforming into something they didn’t recognize, and the Merricks now had an explanation. Mom remembered that she had been at a fairground when she was pregnant, and an elephant had frightened her and knocked her to the ground. Okay, it’s not exactly scientific, but it did help the Merricks cope.
What it didn’t help was Merrick himself. His bizarre transformation seemed to have no end.
7. They Watched In Horror
The Merricks watched in horror as their son continued to disfigure. Let’s start with his feet. They were both growing out of proportion with the rest of his body. Bizarrely, his arms were out of whack, too. One arm was growing out of control, while the other one seemed normal. Their son was looking less like a boy and more like a monster. Joseph himself was starting to fear his own body, and could only look to his mother for comfort.
Sadly, this sole source of comfort would soon be a distant memory.
8. She Went Quickly
In 1873, tragedy struck the Merrick family once more. Mom came down with pneumonia and quickly passed. In just a couple of dismal years, Merrick had lost a brother and his mom. Dad now had two children with physical problems to care for, and he clearly needed help. In 1874, Mr. Merrick married Emma Wood Antill, who was his landlord and a widow with her own children.
If fairy tales have taught us anything about stepmothers, we know Merrick was in for a world of pain.
9. He Was In Misery
Life in Merrick’s new home was pure misery. His new stepmother couldn’t muster up an ounce of affection for the odd looking boy and mercilessly taunted him. It was, however, even worse than that. His own father was as cold as ice to him, too. Merrick attempted to run away from home, but every time his father dragged him back to his gloomy existence.
Maybe school would be a break from his ruthless parents. Nope, not a chance.
10. His Hands Wouldn’t Work
Life at school was no better than at home, so Merrick quit when he was 13 years old. Unfortunately, his dad figured if he wasn’t in school, he had to earn money. In spite of his gruesome appearance, Merrick did find a job in a factory. He worked there diligently until the sad truth became obvious. His deformed hands could no longer do the intricate work. After three years in the factory, he was out on the street.
Now unemployed, Merrick would be back with his horrible parents 24/7.
11. They Slammed The Door
Dad wasn’t about to let his son do nothing, so he put him to work. Mr Merrick was operating a hat store and sent Merrick out to sell the products door to door. Cold sales calls are hard enough as they are. Imagine doing them when you look like the Elephant Man. Merrick got a lot of slammed doors in his face, and then had to go home with a grand total of zero sales.
And after that, he had to face the wrath of his hot-tempered father.
12. He Had To Get Out
When dad saw Merrick arrive home with nothing to show for his day selling hats, he lost it. He mercilessly beat his son, and Merrick saw no other choice. He had to get out of that house and get out forever. He did just that but made himself homeless in the process. Merrick had no one to care for him, and all he got on the streets were stares and taunts.
If no one stepped up and cared for Merrick, this would surely be the end.
13. He Tracked Him Down
Luckily, Merrick’s uncle Charles tracked his nephew down and welcomed him into his house. Merrick now had a roof over his head, but still he wanted to work. He tried door-to-door sales again, but his now-even worse appearance made customers retreat in horror. The final nail in his coffin was the city taking away his sales license. Merrick now had absolutely no way to make a living.
Well, at least he had a place to sleep. Well, guess what: That was going, too.
14. It Was His Last Resort
When Uncle Charles started a family, Merrick felt the squeeze and had to leave the house. At 17 years of age, Merrick approached a place he’d hoped he would never have to resort to: The Leicester Workhouse, where poor souls with no hope did labor in exchange for a place to live. Before that could start, however, Merrick had to have a physical examination.
There was a glimmer of hope here. Surely the doctor would see that Merrick didn’t need to work, he needed medical care. Right?
15. They Worked Him Hard
After the doctor saw Merrick’s physical abnormalities, he shockingly put him in the “able bodied” class. This was not good news for Merrick. It meant that the work was going to be mercilessly hard. The hours were long, and the chores were the kind of labor that no one else wanted to do. This new "life" was more like penal institurion.
As if this weren’t bad enough, there was something downright evil about the workhouse.
16. It Was Deplorable
The conditions in 19th century workhouses were shameful. In addition to the long hours, there was a shortage of food and malnutrition was common. Worse yet, there was punishment. Residents who didn’t work hard enough—or misbehaved—received a harsh beating. Merrick was in a horrible situation, and his body was still transforming.
In fact, the latest mutation was close to lethal.
17. He Couldn’t Eat
Merrick now had a protrusion from his mouth which, like the rest of him, looked quite hideous. But it was actually much worse than that it even looked. You see, this new protrusion made two simple things very difficult for Merrick. He spoke unintelligibly and, worse still, he could barely eat. With little communication and no nourishment, it looked like a sad end for Merrick. Nothing short of a miracle could save him.
18. He Went Under The Cutter
By some miracle, a doctor at the workhouse saw Merrick’s pitiful situation and showed him some mercy. With surgery, doctor Clement Frederick Bryan was able to remove a good portion of the protrusion from Merrick’s mouth. Once the operation was complete, Merrick could speak better and, more importantly, eat. With that problem solved, Merrick resolved to get himself out of the workhouse.
His only option, however, would put him at the mercy of some very sketchy people.
19. He Faced Evil
Merrick had heard that there were human exhibitions called freak shows, and he thought he was freaky enough to join one. He contacted a comedian named Sam Torr, who took one look at Merrick and saw dollar signs. To best exploit Merrick for all he was worth, Torr assembled a trio of managers: J Ellis, George Hitchcock, and Sam Roper.
We’ll soon see how these three men became Merrick’s axis of evil.
20. He Hit The Road
Hitchcock was the first of the trio to take over Merrick’s life. When he met Merrick for the first time, he put on his thinking cap and came up with a name for his new oddity. He called him, “The Elephant Man”. Hitchcock was a born salesman and soon came up with this clever slogan: “Half-a-Man and Half-an-Elephant”.
Yes Merrick was out of the workhouse, but as a member of a touring Freak Show he was about to expose himself to a cruel and dangerous world.
21. He Got Dumped
Merrick’s tour as “The Elephant Man” was a success, so it was time to hit the more lucrative London market. Hitchcock dumped Merrick onto a man named Tom Norman, who agreed to take on Merrick sight unseen. When Norman did eventually meet Merrick, he staggered backward in disbelief.
He was sure there would be no audience for such a horrid looking creature. Boy was he wrong.
22. He Horrified Them
In London, Norman set Merrick up on a simple metal cot in a vacant store. He would then assemble a crowd around Merrick’s drawn curtain. Norman carefully explained that the Elephant Man was not there to scare them but to enlighten them. Norman would then pull the curtain back with a flourish. Let’s just say there was more horror than enlightenment.
This was Merrick’s new miserable life, but if there's one thing he had learned, it's that it could always get worse. And right on cue, his still morphing body was about to throw him yet another heartbreaking obstacle.
23. Even Sleep Was A Huge Risk
Believe it or not, Merrick’s head was still growing. In fact, it was so large now that he could only sleep sitting up with his large head resting on his knees. When Norman asked Merrick about his sleeping position, he got this sad answer: If he didn’t rest his head on his knees, his huge heavy head would likely break his neck. Surely, someone would soon have pity on this poor man.
As it turned out, help was just across the street.
24. He Was The Real Thing
The location of Merrick’s exhibit was pleasantly fortuitous—for once. It was right across the street from London Hospital. Some medical students paid their penny and took a look, likely expecting that the famous Elephant Man was a hoax. When they saw that Merrick was the real thing, they hurried back to the hospital and sounded the alarm.
A modern day hospital would be a great thing for Merrick—but this wasn’t modern. It was Victorian, and those lurking inside didn’t always have the best intentions.
25. He Called Him Names
Dr. Frederick Treves of London Hospital couldn't believe his eyes. He spent 15 minutes looking at Merrick and then went to his office to quickly write down his notes—and they were merciless. He called Merrick a “disgusting specimen” and a “degraded…perverted version of a human being”. Once he’d written down his cruel description of his patient, Treves returned to Norman with a request to examine Merrick.
There was, however, a logistics problem. Treves needed to get Merrick across the street without his appearance causing a riot.
26. He Was Too Terrifying
The obvious solution for getting Merrick to the hospital was a taxi. Merrick’s appearance, however, was so terrifying that even getting from the store to the taxi could cause a major uproar. Together Merrick and Norman made a cap with a burlap sack which could completely cover Merrick’s face. To hide his disfigured body, he wore a huge black coat. Merrick was now ready to roll.
He said goodbye to the vacant store and hello to a complete stranger—who now held his vulnerable life in his hands.
27. He Was Under The Microscope
Dr Treves got started by measuring Merrick’s strange body. His head and right wrist were both much, much larger than a typical man’s. Merrick also had a strange and unpleasant odor surrounding him. At the end of the first examination, Treves also made a conclusion about Merrick’s intelligence. He unkindly called him an “imbecile”.
The doctor had his facts and figures. What he would do with them, would seal the fate of poor Joseph Merrick.
28. It Was More Of The Same
Much like Merrick’s other handlers, Dr Treves wanted to make a show of Merrick. To Merrick, being on display at a meeting of a bunch of doctors must have felt the same as being back at the Freak Show. Maybe this doctor was no better than the showman who had been exposing Merrick in the first place.
Merrick had to choose between two men, and both of them had very suspicious intentions.
29. It Was A Tug-Of-Conflict
The thing is, we don’t know exactly how Norman treated Merrick. Treves wrote that Norman was a drinker who beat Merrick mercilessly, which Norman denied. But let’s remember, it was the doctor who called Merrick “disgusting” and an “imbecile,” while Norman called Merrick “the most remarkable human being ever to draw the breath of life”.
What was clear was that Merrick was in demand. What was not clear was whether either of these guys would ever come to Merrick’s rescue.
30. He Slipped It In His Coat
Merrick eventually decided to stay with Norman and the Freak Show. Apparently, Merrick had said that at the hospital he felt like “an animal in a cattle market”. At least in the Freak Show his humiliation earned him money. Merrick, contrary to what the doctor thought, was no ombecile. For safekeeping, he kept the doctor’s business card in his coat for a rainy day—one that was just around the corner.
31. He Was Vulnerable
Merrick’s time with Norman was about to come to a grinding halt. Londoners had come to their senses and turned their backs on the cruel and humiliating Freak Shows. That, however, didn’t mean the rest of the country had. Merrick’s trio of managers decided that it was time for another tour, and Sam Roper stepped in to arrange it.
Again Merrick was at the mercy of yet another man trying to make a buck from his sad condition.
32. They Didn’t Want Him
Merrick’s tour of the British countryside continued—until the tide turned once again. The entire country had now decided that Freak Shows were in bad taste. This was good and bad news for Merrick. On the plus side, the public now cared about the dignity of people they once called “freaks”. The downside was that Merrick now had no way to make a living at all.
Once again, Merrick’s manager decided on the next move. Sadly, it was one that would take Merrick into an entirely new kind of danger.
33. It Was A Terrifying Place
Merrick’s managers’ new idea was a European Tour. For his entire life, Merrick had known only England, so Europe was going to be a new and terrifying place. The hope was that the taste for freaks in Europe had not changed, but they were wrong. Freak shows were out of favor there too. At least Merrick had a manager to help him get back to England.
Well, it didn’t quite turn out that way.
34. He Was All Alone
Yes, Merrick had a new manager, but this guy suddenly felt stuck in a strange country with a ghastly looking man and no way to make a buck. This enterprising manager did two things to fix his situation, and neither of them were good for Merrick. First, he robbed Merrick of his hard earned savings. Next, he completely abandoned poor Merrick in Brussels.
Merrick was in a foreign land where he didn’t speak the language. He had no way to make money and no way to get home.
35. They Refused Him
Things were not looking good for Merrick. Through his own sheer determination, he managed to get on a train to a city where he knew there were ferries to England. The train trip went off without a hitch. The ferry...not so much. Because of his horrifying appearance, they wouldn’t even let him on the boat.
England was just across the water, but it might as well have been a million miles away. There was only one other option, and if that failed, it was game over.
36. It Was His Last Chance
Merrick knew there was just one nearby city that had ferries to England. Of course, his fear was that they wouldn’t let him on there either. He had to put those doubts aside and just go for it. He got another train and arrived in Antwerp. Here he had some luck for once and managed to get onboard. Of course, getting back to England was just the first step.
He had no idea what kind of reception to expect back at home.
37. He Got Tossed Out
The truth was, England was only going to be marginally less frightening than Europe. Merrick had no money, no place to stay, and any moment he spent on the street ended in public harassment or a riot. With rising dread, Merrick approached another workhouse. The London workhouse took him in, but the next morning, Merrick got a rude awakening. They shoved him back on the streets.
The workhouses had a rule. You could only belong to one at a time, so Merrick had to return to his original workhouse in Leicester. Sadly, he had absolutely no way to get there.
38. They Cornered Him
Merrick was in serious trouble now. He managed to get to Liverpool Station where he could catch a train. With no money, his only hope was to beg for money. Sadly, his appearance and suffocating odor prevented him from getting any help. What he got instead was a crowd that quickly grew frenzied.
But as the mob was cornering Merrick in Liverpool Station, his angel suddenly appeared.
39. It Was His Rainy Day
A kind officer saw the trouble Merrick was in and valiantly swooped in to rescue him. The frantic Merrick couldn’t speak, but he did reach his shaking hand into his pocket and produced a card—the one he’d saved for a rainy day. Later a hansom cab pulled up in front of Merrick, and Dr Treves stepped out. Treves quickly took Merrick to London Hospital, where attendants gave him a much needed bath.
Again, Merrick was under Treves’ complete control. He still didn’t trust the doctor, but all he could do was fearfully wait to see his true colors.
40. He Got The Worst News
As it turned out, Treves was concerned about Merrick—with good reason. Upon examination, it turned out Merrick had bronchitis, which the hospital could easily deal with. There was, however, something more concerning. Treves gave Merrick the terrible news.
Because of a heart condition, he only had a few years to live. Clearly, the hospital was the best place for Merrick, but with no money this was a complete impossibility.
41. There Was A Flood
With no money, Merrick had nothing to look forward to but more misery and a terrible end to his life. There was, however, some hope. The hospital wrote an open letter informing Londoners of Merrick’s desperate situation. What followed was an astounding flood of donations. Enough to allow Merrick to live in the hospital for the rest of his days. For the first time, Merrick felt what it was like to have someone—a lot of people—care.
Still there was something that was missing from Merrick’s life. Something on his bucket list.
42. It Was His First Time
When the kind-hearted Treves found out that, aside from the nurses, Merrick had never really met a woman, he sprang into action. He had a friend named Leila Maturin who was game to meet Merrick. The meeting went well, and Merrick later said something heartbreaking. She was the first woman who had ever smiled at him.
Merrick had managed to get a first smile from a woman. Let’s see how he does with royalty.
43. He Charmed Her Socks Off
While Merrick was at the hospital, there were some rather important visitors. This was the Prince and Princess of Wales who arrived on May 21, 1887. Against all odds, Merrick managed to charm the Princess, but went even further. With the Princess’ help, Merrick’s next friendship was quite astonishing. He became one of Queen Victoria’s besties.
The next item on Merrick’s bucket list, however, was going to be a little more difficult to pull off.
44. He Felt Peace
Merrick had certainly got around Europe when he toured in a freak show. He had never, however, actually been on a holiday. After a very private train trip—the railway kindly arranged an entire railcar just for him—Merrick arrived at the vastness of an estate called Fawley Hall. While staying in the beautiful countryside, Merrick picked wild flowers and mostly had some peaceful time to himself with no one taunting him.
It was a lovely moment for the almost 30 year old man. Sadly, it was going to be one of his last.
45. He Risked It
In spite of his well earned vacation, Merrick’s health continued to decline. April 18, 1890, was a very sad day. A doctor found Merrick’s lifeless body in his bed. It seemed that he had taken a fatal risk. He’d tried to do something that most of us take for granted: sleeping lying down. When he did this, his enlarged head dislocated his neck.
The end of Merrick’s life, however, was only the beginning of his soar to fame.
46. It Took Eight Hours
In 1980 director, David Lynch took a stab at bringing Merrick’s life to the big screen. The problem was getting an actor to resemble the horribly disfigured Merrick. In the end the makeup artist spent eight hours making John Hurt look like the titular The Elephant Man. With eight hours a day in makeup, Hurt wasn’t having much fun. He even told his girlfriend that doing the movie had made him “hate acting.”
The Elephant Man was a huge hit and thrust Merrick’s story into pop culture. Next, it was the King of Pop who wanted a piece of him.
47. He Danced With A King
In 1987, the late pop star Michael Jackson wanted to get his hands on Merrick—quite literally. A newspaper reported that Jackson actually wanted to purchase Merrick’s bones. The sale didn’t pan out, and Jackson later made fun of the whole thing in his 1989 video for “Leave Me Alone”. In it, Jackson and Merrick’s bones do a dance number together.
Jackson may have wanted a piece of Merrick, but this next star wanted more. He wanted to be him.
48. He Said No To Makeup
The play version of Merrick’s life began in the 1970s but has since seen many actors—including David Bowie—try to get it right. More recently it’s been Bradley Cooper’s 2014 Broadway performance that has caused attention. Playing against type, Bradley Cooper—once called the “sexiest man alive”—said “no” to makeup and prosthetics and simply became The Elephant Man.
Whether it was the stage or on film, Merrick’s story was certainly a somber drama. Not so on British television. Here, Merrick went comedic.
49. They Went Out On A Limb
Merrick’s story took an unexpected turn in 2019’s Year of the Rabbit. A recurring character in this sitcom about detectives in Victorian era London is Joseph Merrick. The writers—and actor David Dawson—decided to go out on a fictitious limb and play Merrick as loud-mouthed, pretentious, and “theatrical”.
It seems that the public has an insatiable appetite for Merrick’s life story. Doctors, on the other hand, just want to know what the heck happened to him.
50. It’s Still A Mystery
As we now know, Merrick’s belief that all his suffering was the result of his mother’s troubling encounter with an elephant was a fantasy. Scientists, however, are still bewildered about the cause. Some doctors think it was Proteus syndrome, some call it neurofibromatosis, and still others call it a cruel “once in a blue moon” combination of the two.
The truth is, until we get another Elephant Man, we’ll probably never know.