Sunday, 25 December 2011


I was wondering, do we know anything at all about Joseph's Christmas experience(s) at the Hospital?  Christmas was celebrated  in 19th century hospitals, just as it is today - with decorations, carols, and chapel services.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

"Words For Elephant Man": poetry by Kenneth Sherman

“Words For Elephant Man” by Kenneth Sherman: a review
“Hauntingly beautiful!”

Although these words are overused, they really apply to this collection of poems. This is a journey through Joseph's short, painful life, told in the first-person with dark wit, longing and keen observations of the 19th-century conditions around him.

Unsentimental yet deeply moving, "Words For Elephant Man" take us into Merrick's world of fairgrounds, the grim workhouse from which he was desperate to escape, the society ladies who awakened his awareness as a man, and Frederick Treves, the doctor who secured for him a permanent home at the London Hospital.

Unlike the movie and the play, these poems are historically accurate, being based on the superbly- researched biography, "The True History of the Elephant Man (Howell & Ford, 1980.)

A real tour de force for anyone who admires Joseph Merrick, as well as for readers new to his story, "Words For Elephant Man" should be on every library shelf. Highly recommended for all!

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Real Nurse Ireland

In the "Elephant Man" movie, Treves has painstakingly rescued "John" Merrick from his cruel owner, Bytes, and furtively admitted him to the hospital, tucking him away in an attic isolation ward for food, care and rest. The sharp-eyed hospital governor spots him carrying Merrick's breakfast and summons him away for questioning just as a student nurse happens by. Treves hands her the bowl of porridge and gently reassures her, "Don't worry, he won't hurt you." It's hardly sufficient preparation for Merrick's shocking appearance. At the sight of him, she screams, drops the bowl and runs away, sobbing. This was partly based on Treves' memoirs but he did not name the nurse. In the film, her name is Nora Ireland.

As it turns out, Joseph did have a Nurse Ireland taking care of him, but her real name was Emma Gertrude. She was a 29 year old nursing student the day he was admitted to the London Hospital after being rescued from the train station, broken and starving. From the Royal London Archives, archivist Jonathan Evans gives us this fascinating story about her.

Notice the interesting dates in her life:
Emma Gertrude Ireland (1857 – 1898), has a poignant life story. She entered the London Hospital School of Nursing in March 1886 at the age of 29, having previously worked at St. Pancras Infirmary. She became Sister in Blizard Ward [then a surgical ward at The London] in 1888 .
Emma had been on duty in Cotton ward when Joseph Merrick was first admitted to the London in 1886.
Sshe was the last nurse to see Joseph Merrick alive on the morning of Friday April 11th, 1890.

Emma Ireland knew Joseph from his first day at the LH to his last. Surely she must have learned his speech well and had interesting conversations with him, perhaps confiding her dreams of serving humanity in other places. Three months after Joseph's death, she left the London Hospital and traveled to Hong Kong to care for plague victims. She herself died of the plague in 1898. Here is the notice in the press about her:

1898 Plague in Hong Kong—Two nursing sisters have died from the plague in Hong Kong. A plague patient in delirium coughed in the face of Miss Elizabeth Frances Higgin (Sister Frances) on April 2oth; on the 25th she became ill, and was found suffering from bubonic plague, the worst form of the disease. She died on April 29th. The sister who attended her, Miss Emma Gertrude Ireland (Sister Gertrude), was admitted to the hospital May 2d. The next morning the typical bacilli were found; she died May 5th. Both these sisters served through the plague epidemic of 1894.

Among other British army, navy, and other civilians, the two women were awarded the Hong Kong Plague medal, the highest army medal awarded to civilians. One side was an allegorical scene of a nurse and soldier tending a Chinese man lying on a bed supported by two sawhorses. There is a pail of whitewash between the soldier’s legs. Death flies above the victim, poised to thrust his fatal blow. The Chinese characters from Hong Kong are present on the right side and the date “1894” is present at the bottom.

She was truly a devoted nurse, who gave her life to serving humanity

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Books on Merrick

Quite a number of books have been written on Joseph Merrick, even though tragically, some authors still get the name wrong. It was 'Joseph' and NOT 'John'. Some books are serious in nature, while others... [sigh] ..... others make one grimace, just after reading a few pages.

Perhaps you would like to share your book preferences and tell us why they are so special, (or indeed, horrific), to you.

Monday, 12 December 2011

"The Elephant Man"play review

For a moment, Paradise!"
That's the phrase spoken by one of the main characters in the play's most tender and heartrending scene. This is the tragic story of Joseph Merrick (called "John" Merrick here) by award-winning playwright Bernard Pomerance.

A prominent young surgeon (Frederick Treves) comes across the Elephant Man earning a living in the sideshows (which Joseph did fairly successfully in real life until he was robbed and abandoned by a callous manager. This is shown in the play as well.)  Treves presents Merrick to his fellow physicians in a lecture scene, again based on a real event.
As Treves displays slides of Joseph, a normal actor begins to twist and contort himself in an approximation of Merrick, and remains that way through the rest of the play. The audience is asked to suspend belief and perceive the actor  as Merrick, based on the other characters' horrified response to him. It's not always easy to keep that in mind, but Pomerance makes the point that beneath his deformities, Joseph was a human being like the rest of us, with normal feelings, dreams and desires.

At the center of the play is Treves' relationship with Merrick as he changes from a somewhat overbearing protector and savior of the impoverished young man, to a self-doubting, spiritually adrift scientist in an age that seems bent on self-destruction. Merrick, on the other hand, believes steadfastly in God and constructs a beautiful church as a symbol of his faith. The cynical Treves sees it only as a futile groping towards nothingness.

The real warmth of the play takes place in the fictional friendship between an actress, Mrs. Kendal, and Joseph. Treves has asked her to befriend him, which she does. Alas, she does, too successfully, leading to the moment of forbidden "paradise." What happens after that must be experienced firsthand.  Every month the play is being performed somewhere in the world. Don't miss a chance to see it if it comes your way!

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Joseph Merrick & Christmas

Now that we're into the Christmas season, I'm reminded of what Christmas meant to Joseph throughout his life.

During his childhood, while his mother was still alive, his family might have been able to enjoy a modest Christmas. His father worked two jobs and his mother ran the family haberdashery as well as managed the household of three children, but perhaps they had enough for small gifts for the children.

After Mary Jane died, though, the family fell on hard times. Rockley Merrick remarried a widow named Emma Antill. She had two daughters of her own and was cruel to young Joseph when he was unable to find work. His father made him hawk haberdashery goods, but beat him if he didn't meet his quota. Finally Joseph fled to his uncle's house, where he stayed for two years.

Joseph continued hawk his father's goods, but his appearance drew unwanted crowds of jeering followers, and finally the city refused to renew his hawker's license. Unable to find work, Joseph resorted to admitting himself to  the Leicester Union Workhouse. It was just past Christmas and a terribly sad time to part from loving relatives. Charles must have been heartsick to let Joseph go, but he too had no choice - with a growing family, he could no longer support Joseph.

The workhouse was a grim place of long grueling hours, filthy living conditions, and poor nutrition. At Christmas the inmates were served plum pudding and extra rations of gristly meat, but there was very little holiday joy.

Joseph lived there for four long years. He remained bitter about that terrible time for the rest of his life. Going on the road to perform as the Elephant Man came as a welcome escape and a lucrative way to pay his way in the world. Perhaps his managers and fellow performers enjoyed Christmas dinners and gifts in their small close-knit community.

Fast forward to 1886 and the London Hospital, where the London public, generous patrons, and the hospital committee had guaranteed the Elephant Man a home for life. Settled in comfortable rooms, Joseph was visited by Princess Alexandra, who later sent him not one but THREE Christmas cards, each with a personal message. Gifts poured in from friends, hospital staff, and the public. The hospital always did a bang-up celebration, with the doctors serving a holiday feast and putting on a musical show for the patients. Santa brought presents for the children, and nurses decorated the wards and trooped around singing carols. Even the porters and ward maids were treated to a dance and a midnight supper.

One  year, Joseph was taken to see a Christmas pantomime, "Puss in Boots." To say he was thrilled is an understatement. Treves tells us he believed in the story as if it were real, and talked about it for weeks afterwards.

Then there was the famous dressing bag (or case)  so beautifully depicted in the film. At Joseph's request, Treves bought him a dressing case equipped with elegant fittings-- a silver-backed hairbrush, toothbrush, comb, razor, cigarette case and mirror. Treves removed the mirror and filled the cigarette case with cigarettes so Joseph could pretend to smoke them. Though he couldn't actually use a single item in reality, he spent hours imagining himself as a dashing young Don Juan preparing for an evening out with the ladies.

In his last years,, Joseph must have often given thanks to God for bringing him safely into harbor among loving friends to celebrate Jesus' birth. The story of the baby born to a young woman with the same name as his mother and a humble carpenter, also named Joseph, must have been a powerful comfort and inspiration to him. It was the message of God's love for even the poorest people on earth, as he himself once had been.


Sunday, 4 December 2011

'Changing Faces'

The charity, Changing Faces writes on their website:

"We live in a culture where disfigurement is often seen as a medical “problem” that could/should be fixed by surgery or medical intervention. However, surgery alone cannot always remove a disfigurement and can sometimes lead to further complications. Changing Faces helps people to face the challenges of living with a disfigurement and equips them with the appropriate tools to build self-confidence and self-esteem."

We now know that surgery is only one facet of treating someone with facial or body disfigurements and, thanks to charities such as the UK's 'Changing Faces', the psychological needs of patients are being met. 

Of course, there was no such 'refined' cognitive therapy in Joseph's day. Medicine and psychotherapy back then was still very much in it's infancy and those of the medical profession were constantly on the look out for new, groundbreaking cases, on which to apply their skills. It sounds cold, but that's what was needed, to further the science.

I'm sure Merrick would have benefitted from,'Changing Faces'. All I know is, the services of such charities are, par excellence and indispensable.

Changing Faces website:

Saturday, 3 December 2011

What could doctors do for Merrick if he lived day? Are there advances in modern medicine that could relieve his suffering?

Present day patients with Proteus Syndrome, have, thankfully, fewer symptoms than Merrick, (who lived over one hundred and twenty years ago).  His case remains unparalleled, so, I wonder, would even today's medicine have the answers. How would he be treated differently today? Would that treatment differ from the type given to other Proteus patients?  Please indulge me, what I'm trying to say, in my somewhat clumsy fashion is, would modern medicine hold the answers to treat Merrick if he were alive today, considering the severity and uniqueness of his case.

PLEASE NOTE: This is just a discussion topic, I'm not expecting to be told the answer.

Joseph to John

In Frederick Treves's memoirs, written about Merrick and others, he wrote the name 'Joseph', and then crossed it out and replaced it with 'John'. Having such a close relationship with his patient, I find it strange that he should do this. There are different views why he did it, some say, because he wrote his memoirs many years later he simply FORGOT. However, I believe that would have made more sense had he written 'John' first and corrected it with 'Joseph'. Others say, it's because Treves wanted to give Joseph's family some anonymity. Perhaps that's so. My belief however, is that Treves had the most personal experience and knowledge of Joseph and, he felt by changing the name, he would somehow benefit from keeping the identity to himself. We'll never know Treves' intention for crossing out the proper name and replacing it with a fictitious one. Nevertheless, I'd be really interested to hear your take on this.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Presenting the plaque

(Above article: Leicester Mercury newspaper, Leicester, UK - 1st December 2011) 
The 1st of December was a fantastic day. The rain kept off and it was bright, (still notably colder in Leicester though, comparing it to London). I met Stephen Butt, (fellow FoJCM), in the Moat Community College reception and we were led into the assembly hall, where we individually addressed around 300 teenagers -- extremely well behaved teenagers, I might add. After the address, a photographer from the Leicester Mercury took some group photos.  Stephen and I were photographed with the student council chairman, Habiburrehman Kara, a charming young man, who does the College proud.

I am delighted, that after years of work, (unveiling the plaque in its original location;  appealing to the Leicester Mercury for help to find it, as someone had removed it;  travelling to Leicester to retrieve it;  seeking out a new location for it; and finally, recently presenting it to the Moat Community College on Thursday, 24th November 2011). It's been a long journey, spanning some six years or so, but it was so very worth it. The plaque is now in the most appropriate place and has direct links to Joseph's life in Leicester.

It's a great achievement of the Friends and, I really couldn't be more proud of our work. Thank you to every one concerned and a special thank you to Stephen Butt, for officially presenting the plaque. When handing it over, his last few words were, "take good care of it".  I thought that was a very nice touch.

It will be going up on the wall, next to the school's reception area and I'll visit again in the new year to take some photos of it, in it's final resting place. 

Thank you so much Moat Community College, Leicester!

~  Jeanette