A Romantic Imagination: Joseph Merrick at Bedstead Square

‘There is now in a little attic room off one of our attic wards a man named Joseph Merrick, aged about 27, a native of Leicester, so dreadful a sight that he is unable even to come out by daylight to the garden,’ the Chairman of the London Hospital in Whitechapel, Francis Carr Gomm wrote in a letter to The Times published on 30th November 1886. Carr Gomm appealed to those who were touched by Merrick’s circumstances, and inquired not only as to whether a more suitable home could be found for him, but if anyone might be able to offer him financial assistance.

Within days so many generous donations had poured in that Merrick would be provided for, for the remainder of his life. In December 1886, he was moved to his own private rooms in the grounds of the hospital; Merrick’s time there was to give him the security he had never known and contrasting his previous life with his one at Bedstead Square, he revealed in his own short autobiography, that it was a place where he was ‘as comfortable now’ as he was ‘uncomfortable before.’

Joseph Merrick was born in Leicester on 5th August 1860. In accordance with Victorian superstitions he believed that the deformity that blighted his life was a result of his mother having been frightened by a procession of circus elephants whilst pregnant. In 1909, it was suggested by the dermatologist Frederick Parker Weber, that Merrick had Neurofibromatosis Type I, however, current medical opinion is that Merrick in fact suffered from Proteus Syndrome; yet the exact nature of what caused his condition remains a mystery. What is known is that his deformities only began to present themselves at around the age of 5. The death of his mother when he was 11, and his cruel treatment at the hands of his stepmother, caused Merrick to leave home and he worked as a hawker on the streets of Leicester until he was no longer physically able to. He subsequently spent three years at a Leicester infirmary where he underwent an operation to remove some of the excess flesh that covered his face.

Afterwards, Merrick decided to allow himself to be exhibited as he saw no other way of earning a living. He found a group of men willing to manage him, Messrs Ellis, Hitchcock and Roper and in spite of the portrayal of his cruel treatment in David Lynch’s 1980 film based on Merrick’s life, Merrick himself maintained that he received nothing but ‘the greatest kindness and attention’ from them. As he travelled about the country, Merrick was dubbed ‘the Elephant Man’ on account of the fact that he had a protrusion from his mouth and his skin had a greyish hue. It was whilst he was being exhibited in London in Mile End Road, opposite the London Hospital, that he first met the surgeon Mr Frederick Treves – an encounter that was to dramatically alter his life. A young medical student had informed Treves about ‘the Elephant Man’ and Treves, his curiousity piqued as to the man in question’s medical condition, arranged a private viewing.

In his 1923 memoir, Treves described the first time he saw Merrick, claiming that he was ‘the most disgusting specimen of humanity that I have ever seen.’ Treves went on to say that Merrick was unable to venture outside except for very occasionally, when he would be covered from head to toe in a black cloak that looked as if it belonged on ‘the figure of a Venetian bravo.’ As Merrick’s speech was mostly unintelligible Treves believed that he had been ‘an imbecile from birth.’ Not only was Treves gravely mistaken, in spite of the hand life had dealt him, Merrick was highly intelligent and sensitive, a fact that only enhanced the tragedy of his situation.

Two years later, the show Merrick travelled with was shut down, leaving him alone in Brussels with only a ticket to London and Dr Treves’s card in his possession. As he arrived in Liverpool Street Station, his black cloak drew attention from a large crowd who mobbed Merrick until the police were called. Finding Treves’s card, they contacted him hoping that he might be able to suggest what they should do with the terrified and exhausted  Merrick.

Treves arrived at the police station and Merrick left with him, too traumatised to utter a word. He was taken to the isolation ward of the London Hospital. It was unusual for those deemed to be ‘incurables’ to be treated there, but Treves was adamant that Merrick should be taken care of, as was the Chairman Carr Gomm, who wrote to The Times on Merrick’s behalf.

Merrick was moved to rooms overlooking Bedstead Square, and from that moment his life was very different. For his own part, Treves was determined to discover just how much Merrick understood of his own situation and the outside world, and was stunned to learn of Merrick’s deep intelligence and thoughtfulness, discovering that he had ‘a passion for conversation, yet all his life had had no one to talk to.’ From then on Treves took it upon himself to visit Merrick every day and also found that Merrick, who had taught himself to read, loved books ‘the delight of his life was a romance, especially a love romance.’ In the face of such adversity, Merrick never showed a moment’s bitterness or anger, instead ‘his troubles had ennobled him.’

However, despite assurances that he would be allowed to stay in his rooms at Bedstead Square for the rest of his life, Merrick often asked when he was going to be moved. Merrick also continued to be wary about the impact his appearance had on others, and suggested on numerous occasions that he might be moved to a hospital for the blind where his fellow patients would judge him on his character rather than his outward exterior.

These fears notwithstanding, Treves felt that it would be enormously beneficial to Merrick’s well-being for him to meet other men and women besides those who cared for him at the hospital.  He arranged for a beautiful young widow he knew to pay Merrick a visit. The woman entered his room, smiled and took his hand, and as Treves noted, ‘as he let go her hand he bent his head on his knees and sobbed until I thought he would never cease.’ The meeting profoundly affected Merrick and Treves remembered how, ‘he began to change, little by little, from a hunted thing into a man.’

Indeed, Merrick became something of a cause célèbre. He entertained a great many visitors in his rooms off Bedstead Square, including Alexandra, Princess of Wales and as Treves recalled, ‘he must have been visited by almost every lady of note in the social world.’ Merrick’s guests brought him extravagant gifts and gave him their portraits which he proudly displayed in his rooms and for which he was always manifestly grateful, writing kind letters of thanks.  The transformation in Merrick was palpable and as he told Treves, ‘I am happy every hour of the day.’ One Christmas, Merrick asked for a ‘dressing-bag with silver fittings,’ with which he ‘loved to imagine himself a dandy and a young man about town.’ Merrick’s deformities meant he could never actually use the items in the dressing-bag, nevertheless it ‘was an emblem of the real swell and of the knock-about Don Juan of whom he had read.’

As well as literature, Merrick developed a love of the theatre, although he sometimes struggled to differentiate between the actions of the characters and real life. He also fulfilled one of his greatest wishes, to visit the countryside, a place where he could be ‘alone in a land of wonders.’

In April 1890, Merrick was found dead in his bed. He was unable to sleep lying down and had often expressed the desire to sleep in what he thought was a ‘normal’ way, as other people did. Treves believed that he had made one final attempt to do so, the weight of his head breaking his neck and causing his sudden death.

It was left to Treves to dissect Merrick’s body, and his skeleton remains preserved in a glass case at the Queen Mary University, London, where it is still displayed to the public. Although he had once believed Merrick to be ‘the most disgusting specimen of humanity,’ for Treves and all those who knew him, ‘the spirit of Merrick, if it could be seen in the form of the living, would assume the figure of an upstanding and heroic man, smooth browed and clean of limb, and with eyes that flashed undaunted courage.’ 

Above: A recreation of Joseph Merrick’s voice from the documentary Meet the Elephant Man (2011)


Selected Sources:

The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences – Sir Frederick Treves (1923)