One of the most versatile and talented thespians of his generation, John Hurt has been turning out one amazing performance after another for decades. Probably best known as Kane, the first victim of the xenomorph in Alien, he’s well known to a whole new generation of younger viewers from his roles in movies like Harry Potter, Hellboy, and Indiana Jones 4. This is my tribute to a brilliant actor.

UPDATE: Got an email this morning from John Hurt’s personal assistant. Apparently he saw the illustration and wants a print. Ok, that just completely made my day! O_O

The Elephant Man

- Joseph Carey Merrick was born on 5 August, 1862, to Joseph Rockley Merrick and Mary Jane Merrick. His mother loved him dearly, and up until his second year, he seemed to be an ordinary child. But then tumours began to appear on his face, and as he aged, these tumours grew grotesquely large and into a greyish colour. His parents believed that this physical deformity was caused by the fact that his mother was knocked over by a circus elephant when she was pregnant with him.

Although he seemed to grow more and more “odd” with every passing year, he still had a pretty normal childhood. He went to school, did household chores, and much of what every other child does. Tragedy struck him when he was 11 years of age, with his beloved mother dying of bronchial pneumonia. The one person who loved him unconditionally was gone.

His father wasted no time in remarrying, and his step mother was not a good person. Joseph left school and got a job rolling cigars. He lasted at this job for a few years, until his right hand became so deformed that he could not carry out his duties. He then became a door to door salesman, but people were frightened of his appearance and couldn’t understand the way he spoke. His inability to make a living incensed his father and step-mother, and he was severely beaten on many occasions.

Eventually he decided to combat one evil with another. He left his father’s house and moved into a workhouse. He spent four years in that hell-hole, a place where inmates were known as “indoor paupers” and where bullying and abuse was strife. Eventually he managed to get out, and got himself a job as a ‘visual oddity’. He was exhibited as a ‘Half-a-Man and Half –an-Elephant’, and moved to London where he was displayed in a shop window on Whitechapel Road, across from London Hospital.

While he was on display, he was noticed by Surgeon Frederick Treves. Treves invited Joseph to the hospital to be examined, and noticed that his head circumference was 36 inches, his right wrist was 12 inches, and one of his fingers was five inches in circumference. He noted that Joseph had grey warts covering his skin, and that an unpleasant smell was omitted from them. But it was also noted that Joseph had a good mind, and was healthy in every other way.

Joseph had been making his living as “The Elephant Man”, but eventually the freak-show craze subsided, and people stopped coming to see him. He was the sent to Europe, to places where he was a novelty. Unfortunately while in Europe he was robbed, badly beaten and left for dead. He managed to somehow make his way back to England. He had been gone for two years. In those two years his deformity had grown substantially. He could hardly communicate any more, and people had great difficulty trying to understand him. He was searched by police, who found a business card for Surgeon Treves.

Treves took Joseph back to the hospital and tended to his wounds. The hospital though did not have a wing for “incurables”, as they called it, so required Joseph to be discharged. Treves, with the full support and assistance of the hospital Chairman, Francis Carr Gomm, tried his hardest to find somewhere for Joseph to live, but to no avail. Gomm ended up writing a letter to the London Times, detailing Joseph’s history. His story caused such an outpouring of sympathy that he got himself many sponsors, and even received a visit from the Princess of Wales, Alexandra. He became very popular in ‘High Society’ and with their help, was given a permanent home at the Hospital.

He was also able to visit the theatre, something he’d always wanted to do, go on holidays around the country, write poetry and letters to his friends.

He spent four years living at the hospital, and often stated that they were the happiest four years of his life. His quality of life did lesson quite a lot though, as his condition deteriorated. He needed a lot of help from the nursing staff, he lost energy, he often did not get out of bed, and his head became even larger.

Sadly, Joseph died on the 11 April, 1890, and he was only 27 years of age. As he risked dying from suffocation if he slept lying down, he would sleep sitting up, pillows propped behind him, with his head resting on his knee. I can’t imagine it would be very comfortable at all. When he was found, it was presumed that he had either slipped off the pillows in his sleep and suffocated, or that he had voluntarily decided to sleep like other people, and had suffocated himself. New research points to the possibility that perhaps the weight of his head crushed his spinal cord, causing instant death. This seems like a much more pain free death, and I hope he was given that gentle reprieve.

Joseph’s skeleton remains in the pathology collection at the Royal London Hospital, but not on public display.

By Peet Banks from APPI - Australian Paranormal Phenomenon Investigators

Main: Joseph Merrick
Inset upper: Joseph Merricks Skull
Inset lower: The hood Merrick wore when out in public

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