Click "play" arrow to watch the video above/Music by John Morris (c) 1980
Joseph Merrick: A Three Act Tragedy (inspired by the legend of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man) – Handmade, antiqued cardboard & paper vellum Victorian toy theatre, based upon an original design in the collection of the Theatre Museum, London; battery-operated miniature white lights; LED flickering candle; pewter figurine“Ladies and gentlemen ... I would like to introduce Mr. Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. Before doing so I ask you please to prepare yourselves—Brace yourselves up to witness one who is probably the most remarkable human being ever to draw the breath of life.”
The barker inclined toward his suitably cowed and curious audience, his greasepaint running, staining the brim of his battered showman’s topper. His eyes glinted in the gaslight, his lips curled in salacious glee, the listeners were hanging on his every word. Anticipation heightened, the room suffused with the pong of sweat and soot.
The curtain was drawn back with a flourish.
A woman screamed.
One gentleman covered his eyes with a kidskin-gloved hand and turned aside, shuddering, while another raged that the barker was a charlatan, a swindler, that what stood before them was nothing but a fake, a fraud, trickery constructed of theatrical putty and makeup, of deliberate shadow and subterfuge. That was until the gaslights flared, and what was revealed was painfully all too real.
The Victorian era was one rife with grotesqueries. Circuses, seedy spectacles located in less than salubrious alleyways, even grand exhibition venues like London’s Egyptian Hall, all catered and pandered, offering artifacts and oddities, historical and religious relics, wax figures and clever automatons, menageries of strange and exotic animals. Most who bought tickets, who paid their tuppence, did not care much about such things as sanitation and safety; they only cared about the marvels and the magic promised. As public taste for the macabre escalated, perversity took the place of propriety, and sideshows proliferated, presenting human prodigies and human anomalies. At first, the unpleasantness was kept at a safe distance, in glass cases containing photographs, effigies, or plaster life-casts. But the public quickly put it all down to some type of deception, claiming that it was all make-believe. Photographs could be altered, effigies enhanced, even life-casts could be manipulated. Next came a glut of preserved remains, multi-headed calves and sheep, kittens with six legs, conjoined infants, all pickled in formaldehyde. These, too, could be dismissed as nothing but mere rubber. So, at last, came the parade of the genuine—the living. Fat ladies, dwarves, bearded women, armless men, living skeletons, pallid albinos, the tallest and the smallest were shoved before the footlights, made to dance, sing, or recite for their meager wages.
The worse, the better.
Ugliness was paramount.
Throngs gathered to gawk and gape, to ride and ridicule, to point at and mock; the milk of human kindness curdled and went sour.
Joseph Carey Merrick was born on 5 August 1862, to a Leicester carriage driver and his wife. The babe seemed perfectly normal during his nascent years, chubby, vivacious, with all ten fingers, all ten toes. But fate held a nasty trick up its sleeve for the poor lad, and at the age of five, Joseph began to warp, to mutate, right before his parents’ horrified gaze. His right arm and hand, his right leg and foot grew to outrageous proportions; huge growths began to appear on his head, his face, his back; his fair skin transforming into thick, gray flesh, bulbous, coarse and lumped.
His affliction, known today as neurofibromatosis, an excessive continual growing of both skin and bone, was explained away in the most exaggerated and melodramatic of terms—that his mother had been knocked down and nearly crushed by a rampaging elephant at a fairground while pregnant with the unfortunate child, thus the pachydermatous deformities.
And so, Joseph Carey Merrick became thereafter, the Elephant Man.
Shunned by his family, his pitiable early existence was endured in a workhouse, his schooling abandoned when his misshapenness overwhelmed. To hide from prying eyes, he cloaked himself inside the folds of an oversized trench coat, his massive skull, his travesty of a face masked by a burlap hood, into which one large eyehole had been cut. Living in darkness, his workhouse days of rolling cigars came to an end when his right hand was rendered useless by his disease. His time as a hawker, selling trifles from door to door, was a dismal, humiliating failure; housewives bolted their locks against the monstrosity on the threshold; packs of children followed him in the streets, leering and taunting, pelting him with garbage.
With no other option to be had, Joseph entered into the lurid underworld of the Victorian freak show. Advertised as “Half-a-man, Half-an-elephant,” Joseph toured London and its environs, his appearance oftentimes considered too dreadful even for such novelty acts. Complaints came thick and fast, the show was shuttered, and Joseph discovered himself a freak amongst freaks. Spurned by the legitimate circuit, he was soon on display—a lone performer—in a hovel in London’s squalid Whitechapel district, saving his pennies, his dream to someday have a home of his own.
Cruel fate now turned a kind eye on Joseph. The little space in which he was on view happened to be directly opposite the London Hospital, and one day the eminent surgeon, Dr. Frederick Treves, visited him. Treves at first saw nothing more than a prime specimen of dire defect, one that could provide an hour or so of interest in his next lecture. He believed the Elephant Man to be an idiot, an imbecile, someone of insufficient mental capacities…
…he was wrong.
Joseph was clever; Joseph was cultured; he could read and write. He wanted to learn, to better himself. He wanted to be like other people.
Something no less than an impossibility.
Even the comforts of sleep were denied him. Because of the immensity of his skull, he could not lie down, the weight of bone too much for his neck, making it difficult for him to breathe. So, Joseph was forced to doze, seated on a bed, knees drawn up, his great head resting forward upon them.
All this Treves was to find out and sympathize with, and with the benevolence and generosity of its chairman and staff, Joseph finally found his home—two small rooms at the back of the London Hospital. His plight was publicized, bringing with it an amazing outpouring of donations, of the compassion he was so sorely lacking prior. Even Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, took an interest in Joseph’s well-being, sending her daughter-in-law, Princess Alexandra, to call upon him.
And where princesses went, so went the world.
Joseph was a sudden celebrity, playing host to such notables as actress Dame Madge Kendal and her circle. His guests brought him books, walking sticks and sartorial accoutrements he would never use, as well as signed sepia-toned cabinet cards of themselves in chased silver frames; so many came that Joseph’s chambers became a picture gallery of England’s aristocratic who’s who. Each and every gift Joseph acknowledge with always a note of gratitude, and sometimes a small, well-detailed building, a church or cathedral, constructed of cardboard. He attended the theatre, he was taken on holiday to the English countryside, where he spent the languid days, untroubled by prying eyes, wandering the wooded glens, collecting wild flowers.
And if the delight found in his last years could be criticized by saying that he was yet on display, this time for a higher echelon of spectator, so be it. He was happy. But still his dream of being like others eluded. Why couldn’t he walk the city proudly? Why couldn’t he take tea in the High Street? Why couldn’t he lay his head upon a pillow to sleep?
It was in pursuit of his dream that Joseph died.
He was only twenty-seven when he was found stretched out on his back on his bed, serene, asphyxiated by the size of his head.
But it was the size of Joseph Merrick’s heart that really mattered—one filled with joy, with wonder, with dignity, with simple human kindness.
Joseph Carey Merrick’s quest was to be like other people…
…other people should have been like him.
'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.
—poem used by Joseph Merrick to close his letters, adapted from “False Greatness” by Isaac Watts