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you ever thought that your life is hard or unfair that means you have not heard the story about Joseph Merrick’s life also nicknamed by the media as “The Elephant Man” due to his deformations around the body. These deformations have been caused by a rare genetic disease known as neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1), however, research from 1986 discovered that Joseph was actually suffering from a much rarer condition known as the Proteus syndrome.

Destined to a hard life

Joseph Merrick at the age of 26 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Joseph Merrick was born in Leicester, England on the 5th of August 1862. From a very young age, Joseph was already growing physical deformities and tumors that the medics at the time believed to be a weird type of bubonic disease. As you can imagine, medicine was not very advanced in the 1800s as many doctors, even the ones in England were still using treatments from the past to solve most medical issues. However, this was something that doctors haven’t seen before.

For the time being there weren’t many doctors could do, so Joseph tried to live his life with the physical deformities God has given him. He tried to attend school just like every other kid, but you can imagine the sort of bully he had to endure every day. Being called a monster that did not belong in that society made him feel like a burden to all of those surrounding him so at the age of 13 he left school.

Life at home wasn’t much better either, he was forced to live with his father and stepmother who would make him feel like trash by giving him half a meal and telling him “that is more than you deserve”. To avoid all the abuse from his parents he would sometimes stay on the streets with an empty stomach. There isn’t much information about his actual mother but many believed that she died during giving birth to Joseph.

At the age of 17 he started working in a cigar factory where, despite his appearance, he was treated well because he was a hard worker. Sadly, after 3 years, his physical deformation has spread to his right hand to the point where he was unable to work at the factory anymore. On the other hand, he was able to find another job that intended less use of his hands, which was a hawker (peddler). This new job was not very well paid, so as he was not able to make the end’s needs, his predicament forced him into human novelty exhibitions (freak shows).

hope for a better life

Sir Frederick Treves (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

During his exhibition at the freak show, he meets a famous doctor from the Royal London Hospital by the name of Frederick Treves. The doctor felt Joseph’s hardship and wanted to do all that is possible to help him. He was taken to the hospital where the doctor found out that despite his original condition worsening, he also developed a heart condition at the young age of 25 years old.

After more research and analyses done by Doctor Treves, it became clear that his deformities were incurable as medicine at the time wasn’t advanced enough to even give an accurate diagnosis of his condition let alone cure it. Also, the severe complications and stains which they placed upon Joseph’s body meant that he only had a few years left to live.

Joseph Merrick in his early 20s (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Doctor Treves and the staff at the Royal London Hospital were desperate to look after Joseph and to ensure that his final years would be as comfortable as possible. However, the hospital was not equipped nor did it have permission to deal with incurable patients. There was indeed a separate institution for terminal illnesses (hospice) but they wanted nothing to do with Joseph’s case.

Eager to resolve this problem, Francis Carr Gomm; chairman of the hospital’s committee, wrote a detailed letter to The Times newspaper, which was printed on the 4th December 1886. In this letter, Francis outlined Joseph’s case and appealed for public donations. Such an appeal had never taken place before.

The Times Newspaper from 4th of December 1886 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The appeal was a huge success as the victorian public dug deep in their pockets and in no time enough money was raised to enable the Royal London to provide Joseph with a home for the rest of his life. The new rooms were implemented in a secluded section of the hospital that was designated for Joseph’s personal use. Overlooking a quiet courtyard known as ‘Bedstead Square’, the pair of rooms was skillfully converted into a little apartment for Joseph. The apartment was equipped with all the usual Victorian home comforts, including a fireplace and stout furniture (Joseph’s bed and armchair being custom-built to make his distressed body as relaxed as possible ).

Last years of happiness

After some time when Joseph became used to his new “home”, he was introduced to a female guest who took his hand, smiled naturally, and made no mention nor gesture of his deformities. Joseph broke down in tears, explaining that no woman (apart from his beloved mother) had ever treated him with such kindness. This critically changed Joseph’s confidence which lead to the hospital staff as well as the Victorian society to see him with different eyes, not as a monster, but a kind human being.

Princess of Wales and Kind Edward VII of England (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

No longer did people see him as a freak to gawp at. Instead, visitors enjoyed nothing more than popping by for a chat; those who did discover that Joseph was a learned, sensitive, intelligent man, capable of conversing on a wide variety of topics. An avid reader, he also began to accumulate an impressive library. Joseph even had the honor of meeting Kind Edward VII and the Princess of Wales. This made victorian society praise him for his kindness and intelligence and not torment him for his look.

By all accounts, the Elephant Man never displayed any bitterness about his condition, accepting it with quiet resignation and good humor- for example, he once enjoyed a joke with a visiting surgeon, stating that he often wondered how he would appear when the time came for him to be preserved in a big bottle of alcohol! Joseph knew that when he would die, his body was destined to become a medical artifact that would help contribute to a better understanding of his condition which was still a mystery.

Joseph became very keen on going outside of the hospital to see the inside of a real house, so Doctor Treves arranged to take Joseph to his own home which seemed incredible to Joseph as he spent hours going from room to room, inspecting all the small objects such as cups and decorations.

Joseph was also fascinated by the idea of the theatre and, one special evening during the Christmas of 1887, he was taken to see a pantomime; Puss in Boots at the Theatre Royal, Dury Lane in Covent Garden. Madge Kendal who organized his trip to the theater made sure that Joseph would have his own private box so he would not be disturbed by anyone. For the performance, Joseph was brought to the theatre in his own private carriage. He was also permitted to use the secretive, Royal staircase, thus allowing him to maintain total privacy.

As Joseph’s condition was getting worst, Doctor Treves knew that Joseph’s end was approaching, therefore he wanted to make his last wish come true which was to go and live in a cottage. So Doctor Treves arranged for Joseph to live for six weeks at a private cottage in the countryside. Shortly after the Easter of 1890 in which he had happily been able to attend church services in the hospital’s chapel, he was discovered dead on the 11th of April 1890. The medics believed that he has died asleep. Joseph was only 27 years old at the time of his death.

Let this story remind you as a lesson of life, a lesson of humility and a lesson of how lucky were are to be born healthy and to bee healthy as well as happy. Just as Joseph has showcased in his short life, you make what you want of your life no matter the predicament you are defined to live in.

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