The true story of the Elephant Man reveals a profound lesson about the incredible human potential.
What is the measure of man? What makes a person uniquely human? What is the most important human quality? These questions are raised by the widespread interest in the story of Joseph Merrick, the "Elephant Man" of Victorian England. At one point Merrick was one of the most physically repulsive, loathsome men ever to walk on earth — forced to exhibit himself in a freak show on Whitechapel Road in London. But Merrick also eventually became the darling of London high society, a person renowned for his intelligence, gentleness and humility. His life story is so moving that it has become the subject of at least two books, a Broadway play, and a popular movie.* As newspaper columnist George Will has remarked, Merrick has come a long way since Whitechapel Road. Merrick's story, and our natural interest in it, tells us much about the dignity and grandeur of the ultimate human destiny. It does so because it tells us about human character. It also reveals why God's way of giving brings good results. Most of what we know about Joseph** Merrick comes from Frederic Treves, a surgeon at London Hospital, who rescued him from his nightmarish existence. When Treves first saw Merrick, the Elephant Man was being exhibited in a small shop across the street from the hospital in a one-man freak show. Treves had been made curious by a poster advertising a creature who was half-man, half-elephant. It was a dark and bare room. The curtain was drawn. On a stool sat Joseph Merrick, small and frail, with a blanket covering his head and shoulders. A gas burner was the only heat and only light in the shop. Treves later wrote that Merrick seemed the "embodiment of loneliness." "Stand up!" commanded Merrick's exhibitor, as if speaking to a dog. The Elephant Man dropped his blanket and slowly rose. His head was about twice normal size — about the same size around as his waist. Bony, fleshy masses of skin grew out from the forehead and upper jaw. The upper lips had been turned almost inside out. The Elephant Man's face was like a block of gnarled wood. The skin was spongy and fungeous looking, resembling brownish cauliflower. Treves was struck. "At no time had I met with such a degraded or perverted version of a human being as this lone figure displayed." Treves had another thought: surely this poor creature must have no more consciousness of his own plight than an animal!
Wretched and Lonely
Merrick was not born deformed; he was suffering from a disease that we now know to be multiple neurofibromatosis. The disease causes benign tumors to form at nerve endings. It also distorts the bone structure. It is a very rare disease. It is still incurable, though today men "control" it through drugs and constant surgery, unavailable to Merrick. The disease first made its appearance at age 5. I t progressively got worse throughout the Elephant Man's life, as tumors continued to appear and distort his face and body. His mother died when he was 10 years old. Evidently she was kind to her son, for Merrick carried around with him a small portrait of her throughout his life. Later, Merrick would often volunteer that she was beautiful.
"God's law — the true law of life — is, simply, love! Love means giving, not getting," wrote the editor-in-chief of this magazine as far back as 37 years ago. The law, of course, is timeless. Had not Treves acted in conformity to God's great law, we never would have known about the human being — in which dwelt the spirit of man - trapped inside the Elephant Man's body. Sometime after their first meeting, the Elephant Man had to be rescued from a mob at Liverpool Street Station. Evidently, after Treves had examined Merrick, the Elephant Man was taken on a "tour" of Europe where he was robbed of his life savings and abandoned by his "manager." Somehow Joseph Merrick made it back to England in what must have been a nightmare of a trip. On his arrival at Liverpool Street Station, in London, an ugly crowd gathered to taunt and gawk. The movie plays up this incident in the Elephant Man's life: it is here Merrick, panic stricken and trapped in the corner of the underground men's room, cries out: "I am not an animal — I am a human being!" The police came to the Elephant Man's rescue. They found Treves' card on him and brought him to London Hospital. For the first time in his life, or at least since his mother died, Joseph Merrick was about to be treated with kindness and compassion. London Hospital was overcrowded. But Treves realized that the Elephant Man had nowhere else to go. For weeks his fate was in doubt, and Merrick himself assumed he would soon have to be moving on. But a friend of Treves, a barrister named Carr Gomm, also took pity on the Elephant Man. Gomm wrote a letter to the London Times explaining Merrick's plight. Enough money came in. Merrick, shunted everywhere he had gone, now could have the refuge of his own room in the basement of the hospital — for the rest of his life. Treves saw a human being inside the Elephant Man's grotesque body — and was determined to bring out that humanity. He decided that the best thing for the Elephant Man was to meet people of high quality. Treves asked Leila Maturin, a pretty widow, to meet Merrick. It was a simple task. All she had to do was enter Merrick's room, smile and shake his good hand. This she did successfully. In Treves' own words: "As he let go her hand he bent his head on his knees and sobbed until I thought he would never cease. The interview was over. He told me afterwards that this was the first woman who had ever smiled at him...." The first woman who had ever smiled at him! The event changed Merrick's life. Afterwards, Treves brought many prominent members of London society into Merrick's room, including Madge Kendal, one of the most popular actresses of her day, and the Prince of Wales. Afterwards, Merrick, once turned out by his family as a burden, would occasionally receive bags of game from the future king after royal hunts. None of this would have come about — Merrick would have remained imprisoned in his twisted, distorted body — if Treves had not acted according to God's principle of GIVE.
The Measure of a Man
Merrick's visitors all seemed to remark about his gentle, humble, romantic spirit. Often Merrick's attitude was described as child-like-constantly appreciative of little kindnesses showed him. "Judge not," the apostle John quotes Jesus as saying, "according to the appearance" (John 7:24). Merrick all his life had been judged by his appearance. Those who now looked beyond the degraded, outward appearance had nothing but praise. What is the most important aspect of a human being? It is his character! If Merrick's life stands for anything, it is that character, and not appearance, is what counts. ... "the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart" (I Samuel 16:7). God looks on the heart! In the Bible, the prophet Samuel came to the house of Jesse. Samuel had come to anoint the future king of Israel. Jesse paraded before Samuel seven of his eight sons — the ones who most appeared to be future " kings. But God had not chosen them. He chose the youngest, most unlikely candidate — completely independent of what he looked like. Treves himself seemed to grasp the same principle. He wrote, "Those who are interested in the evolution of character might speculate as to the effect of this brutish life upon a sensitive and intelligent man.... He had passed through the fire and had come out unscathed. His troubles had ennobled him. He showed himself to be a gentle, affectionate and lovable creature... I have never heard him complain. ... His gratitude to those about him was pathetic in its sincerity and eloquent in the childlike simplicity with which it was expressed." (Emphasis added.) Merrick's story should remind us that God's supreme purpose is the creation of perfect, righteous character — God reproducing himself by developing in human beings perfect character. Merrick should remind us Christ said that such character is worth infinitely more than physical appearance or ability: "... it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire" (Matthew 18:8). And as Herbert Armstrong has written, "perfect, holy and righteous character is the supreme feat of accomplishment possible for Almighty God the Creator."
Not an Animal
The key to understanding character is that there is a spirit in man, which records that character as it develops throughout one's life. The key difference between humans and the rest of God's creatures is the spirit in man. As Herbert Armstrong has written in his book The Incredible Human Potential: "Animals are equipped with brain and instinct. But they do not have power to understand and choose moral and spiritual values or to develop perfect spiritual character. Animals have brain, but no intellect — instinct, but no ability to develop holy and Godly character. "And that pictures the transcendental difference between animal brain and human mind." The Elephant Man is a poignant reminder that there is a vast difference between animal mind and human mind! When Treves first met Merrick, it was because of curiosity. Merrick's freak-show manager had managed to imply that he was exhibiting a creature, half-human, half-animal. When Treves first describes Joseph, Joseph is an it, not a he. But Merrick possessed human knowledge — and no one can have such knowledge except the spirit of man be in him (I Cor. 2:11). Imprisoned in a hideous outer shell was an intelligent human being. Merrick received many gifts from his visitors at London Hospital. The ones he prized most were books. By the end of his life, he managed to acquire a "respectable" library. Merrick was an eager reader — including the Bible and several serious English novels, such as those of Jane Austen. The man who once was condemned to zoo-like degradation developed an appreciation of drama and the theater. Special arrangements had to be made, of course — Merrick's presence would have created a scene if the other patrons saw him. A baroness donated her private box, and Merrick was taken in and out of West End theaters without notice. When Treves first met Merrick, the Elephant Man was in such a degraded and lonely condition that the poor "creature" certainly could not be aware of the miserableness of his existence. But he was. Merrick was conscious — throughout every painful moment — of his deformity. Perhaps because of this, Merrick developed a great love and appreciation of beauty. When enough money had accumulated from visitors' gifts, Merrick had it spent on a gentleman's dressing case with silver fittings. The set included silver backed hairbrushes and comb, as well as a silver shoehorn and an ivory handled razor. In front of his dressing case, the Elephant Man would imagine himself the elegant English gentleman, as he dressed in" fine evening clothes. A show of vanity, no doubt. But a testimony at the same time that he was a human being. Merrick's humanity also revealed itself in his one hobby. To all who showed him kindness, Merrick made small cardboard models of a nearby cathedral and presented them as gifts.
The Glorious Human Potential
The Elephant Man was a victim of a rare disease, which transformed his outward appearance into something barely recognizable as human. His face could show no expression, yet he displayed uniquely human qualities — intelligence, sensitivity, thankfulness. If the recent interest in Merrick should tell us anything, it is that every human being has the spirit of man in him — and therefore has the glorious possibility of being born into the divine Family begotten by God the Father. What a shame the general religious world does not understand the truth about the doctrine of the second resurrection presented in the Bible! Almost everyone who has ever lived will one day be resurrected and told, first hand, of God's way of life, without the corrupting influences present in this evil world (compare Revelation 20:5 and Isaiah 65:17-21). At that point, they will have the opportunity to receive the Holy Spirit, which enlivens one to become part of God's very Family! Such an opportunity will be afforded Joseph Merrick. Given his gentleness of character, it is hard to imagine him not choosing the way of God. We should also be reminded of the need for Christ to return to radically change the world. Merrick could not be cured. Even today, his disease can only be con: trolled. But in God's World Tomorrow, there will be no more neurofibromatosis. No more disfigurement. No more deformity. There will be mercy. Joseph's life was made miserable by unthinking, gawking and staring people who taunted him in public, much as little children often make fun of those of them who are even in the slightest way different from the others. God's world will be made up of those who act more like Treves and less like the ugly crowd at Liverpool Street Station. One really cannot think of Joseph Merrick without thinking of how God's Government will judge people after Christ returns: "... and he [the returned Christ] shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears: But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth..." (Isaiah 11:3-4). Merrick wrote a short autobiography, giving sketchy details of his life. He concluded it with a stanza from a poem by Isaac Watts, a Nonconformist (nonChurch of England) clergyman, which seemed to express all his hopes and aspirations: If I could reach from pole to pole/ Or grasp the ocean with a span/ I would be measured by the soul/ The mind's the standard of the man. The Elephant Man most of all wanted to be judged by his mind — his character — not his misshapen body. Someday, he will be.
* The authoritative source on the life of Joseph Merrick is The True History of The Elephant Man by Michael Howell and Peter Ford, Penguin Books, 1980, which includes both the Elephant Man's own autobiography and the memoirs of Frederic Treves, the physician in London Hospital who brought him to prominence. It provided the biographical source material for this article. The movie and the play depart from the true story in a number of instances.
** The Elephant Man's real name was Joseph. Treves had a mental block over the name and always called the Elephant Man "John," an error repeated by other writers.