The Elephant Man's real name was Joseph Merrick, his picture is above. Merrick was born in 1862 in Leicester. His mother died when he was eleven and he spent time in and out of the workhouse in the city. His disease which caused the deformities in the picture above began to make its appearance at the age of five- he was unable to find work either as a cigar roller (because his right arm was too large to manipulate the cigars) or as a hawker of goods (because his appearance terrified people). He eventually ended up being used by a series of fairground entrepreuneurs as an attraction, a freak that the general public would gaze at. He was an unsuccessful freak in that he was almost too freakish, he terrified most of the people that he came across. In an attempted continental tour, Merrick found little success and was abandoned and robbed by his then manager. At that point he made his way back from Brussels to Liverpool St station and fainted when he reached the station handing over the card of a London doctor Frederick Treves to the station staff. Treves once summoned arrived and recalled inspecting Merrick years before when a junior surgeon, he took pity on the Elephant Man and got him put up in the London Hospital in his own set of rooms. Merrick became a society curiosity- the Princess of Wales was only the most noble of a succession of famous guests- he attended the theatre and stayed in the country. This idyllic lifestyle ended when Merrick died aged 27 in 1890. He couldn't sleep lying down and Treves believed that in a final effort to do so, the weight of Merrick's head either broke his own neck or that his head fell forward and he suffocated himself in his own trunk.
The story may sound horrible and whatever Merrick's disease- the most modern guess is Proteus syndrome and possibly a disease of the nerves named neurofibromatosis type 1- he suffered hugely from it. His body as you can see in the photograph above was horribly deformed- with the exception of his genitals and his left arm, his entire shape was twisted and stunted. He limped. He could barely speak comprehensibly, though after much practise others might learn how to hear the words amidst his curious tones. He had continual health problems mainly bronchial but others as well- he had to have a huge overgrowing trunk sawn off in his teenage years. He was completely isolated. Most of his notions of people came from the books he read which were his only consolation. Fascinatingly he saw the normal world not as the world he saw but as the world of a Jane Austen novel- Emma was one of his favourite books. He was not mentally retarded and was perfectly aware of his own condition. He had an incredibly romantic attitude to women- seeing them as perfect and placing on a pedestal- sublimating sexual desire into a reverence for the angelic female. He was cruelly treated, and yet himself very kind, almost saintlike. Its likely that at times in his life- with his mother as a young child, with his early showmen managers and later with Treves that he found real compassion from others but it was only later on that he was able communicate.
His life is an incredible story. It does reveal a lot about the nineteenth century and attitudes to entertainment. We often think of the Victorian era as a censorious one- but in reality the story of Merrick makes us I hope realise that it was merely differently morally orientated. Laughing at Merrick would be seen as immoral today, in the early Victorian fairground it was a way of making money. The story also reveals the limited choices out there for someone like Merrick in the Victorian world: he was incredibly lucky to be found firstly by the showmen and then by Treves but he could have languished in a workhouse for years and years and almost did. The one bitterness that he constantly displayed was about his time in the workhouse and the horrible conditions in which he lived- endless bullying and endless drudgery. He was denied a lot of what we consider to be the attributes of normal life: Merrick had few friends until his later days, was almost childlike in his attitude to the world because his world was merely his own mind, he had so little engagement with other people, he had no relations with the other sex (women ran screaming from him normally: something that caused him great sadness) and though he read voraciously he had little education. But somehow despite that he was almost devoid of bitterness and hatred: the fascinating thing about Merrick is that he was gentle and kind and thoughtful, in a childish way, yet still a genuine way. He managed to overcome his difficulties according to those close to him with a real fortitude of personality.
His tale is interesting and so distinct from the rest of human experience that its hard to read lessons from it, I think what is fascinating about it is the difference that it reveals between Victorian London and our own day and also the ways that this deep interiority was actually a deep resource for Merrick. Cast upon his own mind, he found there the willpower to be a good person. Despite his terrible affliction, and his terrible life, he succeeded in ways that people richer and more powerful than him did not. Furthermore we should also remember that he was lucky: there were no doubt hundreds like him or even thousands who perished, abandoned to the meagre resources of the early welfare state.