The True History of the Elephant Man, Paperback
3 out of 5 (1 rating)


Through horrible physical deformities which were almost impossible to describe, Joseph Carey Merrick spent much of his life exhibited as a fairground freak until even 19th century sensibilities could take no more.

Hounded, persecuted and starving, he ended up one day at Liverpool Street Station where he was rescued, housed and fed by the distinguished surgeon Frederick Treves.

To Treve's surprise, he discovered during the course of their friendship that lurking beneath the mass of Merrick's corrupting flesh lived a spirit that was as courageous as it had been tortured, and a nature as gentle and dignified as it had been deprived and tormented.

This is a moving story of a tragic individual and his survival against overwhelming odds in Victorian England.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 240 pages, facsimiles, portraits
  • Publisher: Allison & Busby
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Other performing arts
  • ISBN: 9780749005160



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John Merrick - the Elephant Man - has wandered into popular culture, with plays and movies, even novels going so far as to involve him in the Jack the Ripper crimes. But what people think they know about Merrick is mostly wrong. For instance, his name wasn't John, it was Joseph, but for unknown reasons the doctor who took him into the London hospital where he spent the last few years of his life decided to use John in his memoirs. For another, Merrick's mother didn't abandon him. She was a "cripple" who likely had the same condition he did and died when he was 10. But before that he was reasonably well cared for, and it wasn't until he was older that he left when his family couldn't support him any more. And the showmen that toured Merrick around are often criticized for exploiting him when in fact, he was reasonably well cared for during this time when his only other alternative was to enter a workhouse - a probable death sentence for him given the conditions. But really, it wasn't until surgeon Frederick Treves brought him into the hospital and arranged - in spite of the rules - for his long term care from private donations that Merrick began to have a life. He was given a place to live and medical care, but also became a public cause for the upper class all the way to the Royals. And this gave him exposure to art and culture, education and comforts, allowing him to spend about four years before his death in security. Some hundred years later, Michael Howell and Peter Ford wrote The True History of the Elephant Man, bringing to light much new material on Merrick's life. It's a short book, but filled with info on the man and his day. They manage to treat everyone in the story fairly, I think - there are no villains and heroes here. Just a quiet little man who suffered a great deal and people who mostly wanted to help him as best they could. Were there some who took advantage of him? Of course. Even some of the helpers, like Treves, got advantage from knowing him. But Howell and Ford repeatedly show the humanity of Merrick and those around him.

Also by Michael Howell