‘Tis true my form is something odd,

But blaming me is blaming God;
Could I create myself anew
I would not fail in pleasing you.

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. [1]

In a small museum in the London Hospital Medical College a famous human skeleton is kept under lock and key.  These are the bones of “the Elephant Man” – Joseph (a.k.a. John) Merrick (1862-1890) who suffered from a rare medical condition now diagnosed as Proteus Syndrome that resulted in Merrick suffering severe skin and bone deformities. [2]

Merrick exhibited and toured as a circus attraction under the name the Elephant Man until discovered by a surgeon from the London Hospital.  Eventually he was permited to stay at the hospital despite his condition being incurable.  The surgeon, Frederick Treves, visited him daily; other visitors included members of London society and the royal family. [3]

Merrick was only 27 when he died, apparently of asphyxia.  He may have suffered his fate because he wanted to lie down to sleep like a normal human being, despite knowing that the weight of his head made it impossible for him to breathe in this position.

Merrick’s story resonated deeply with Michael Jackson, who reportedly saw parallels between his own life and that of Merrick.  The story goes that he watched David Lynch’s 1980 black and white movie “The Elephant Man” 35 times, never once without crying.” [4]

Then, on 30 May 1987, the Los Angeles Times published the following item:

Michael Jackson has submitted an official bid, for an undisclosed sum, for the remains of the late John Merrick, known as the Elephant Man, from the London Hospital Medical College which has kept them since Merrick’s death in 1890.

According to Jackson’s manager, Frank Dileo of Los Angeles: “Jackson has a high degree of respect for the memory of Merrick.

He has read and studied all material about the Elephant Man, and has visited the hospital in London twice to view Merrick’s remains.

His fascination with their historical significance increased with each visit, along with hopes to add them to his collection of rare and unusual memorabilia at his California compound.”

“Jackson,” Dileo added, “has no exploitative intentions whatsoever and cares about and is concerned with the Elephant Man as a dedicated and devoted collector of art and antiques.” [5]

It has often been said that (a) Frank Dileo was the source of some of the more outlandish tabloid myths about Michael Jackson – the Elephant Man’s bones and sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber being two obvious examples.  It has also been said that (b) some of these headline-grabbing myths originated from Michael himself, or were at least approved by him under the belief that “any publicity is good publicity” which we know all too well to be an absolute fallacy.

In her book “My Family, the Jacksons” his mother Katherine wrote: “To be fair, a couple of the stories had been spread by Michael’s own people. I’m referring to the silly reports that Michael had slept in a hyperbaric chamber and had made a serious offer to buy the Elephant Man’s bones. I didn’t talk to Michael about the rumours, so I don’t know what role, if any, he had in putting the stories out. But I did watch with dismay as his manager, Frank Dileo played up the stories to the press… As for the Elephant Man’s bones, I have no idea whether Dileo made an attempt on Michael’s behalf to buy them. If he did so, he did so in jest.  And if by some miracle the London medical centre that owns the bones had agreed to sell them, Michael knows me well enough to know that I wouldn’t have let him in the house with them.” [6]

Michael’s supposed bid to purchase Merrick’s skeleton was discussed on Canadian radio in June 1987 with David Edwards, Chief Administrator at the London Hospital Medical College.  Edwards talks about Michael’s visit to the museum where the skeleton is still housed and refers to Michael making two bids for the remains, for US$500,000 and US$1,000,000 respectively, both of which were rejected.  The Elephant Man was simply NOT for sale. [7]

Michael had spoken about his interest in Joseph Merrick (whom he calls John, as per the movie) with considerable empathy to Ebony/Jet in 1987 prior to the start of his Bad World Tour. [8]   The interviewer asked if he would be interested in playing the role of Merrick and in replying Michael references John Hurt’s celebrated performance in the David Lynch movie.  The movie was preceded by the 1979 Tony Award-winning stage play in which the title role had been played in later productions by David Bowie (1980) and Mark Hamill (1981). [9]

When in 1993, Oprah Winfrey asked Michael if it was true that he wanted to buy Merrick’s bones, he responded that it was just a story, saying: “Why would I want some bones?”’ [10]   Nevertheless, the story has persisted, becoming one of the undying tabloid tales of Michael’s life.

Personally, despite the unlikeliness of the bids having any genuine intent, I can imagine Michael feeling such empathy for Merrick that he might want to give the skeleton a fitting burial and perhaps erect a memorial for him rather than have the remains continue to be displayed as an object of curiosity and scientific study, as useful as the latter may be to other (current) sufferers of Proteus Syndrome. [11]  But that’s just my personal fantasy, there is no evidence to support the idea.

In 1988, Michael himself highlighted the absurdity of the Elephant Man’s bones story by “dancing” with an animated version of Merrick’s skeleton in the Leave Me Alone short film.  Though disguised as a tale of love gone wrong, the song could have been a plea from Merrick himself as he attempted to evade those who followed him and harassed him out of curiosity at his deformities, labelling him “freak” or “monster”.

As he explained in his autobiography Moonwalk, Michael was sending out a simple message.  “The song is about a relationship between a guy and a girl.  But what I’m really saying to people who are bothering me is: ‘Leave me alone.’” [12]

The Leave Me Alone short film is rich in imagery that pokes fun at the tabloids, but his dance with the Elephant Man’s bones is particularly fascinating.  Michael and the animated skeleton appear as though in a sideshow exhibit, with bars behind them, leaving them impelled to face their audience and perform.  Michael is shackled by a ball and chain, which he uses as a prop for his choreography.


What might we make of this?  Quite a lot if we analyse the iconography in the context of the lives of the individuals depicted, e.g. the Elephant Man imprisoned in his deformity; Michael Jackson shackled by his fame; both of them objects of curiosity for an insatiable public.  Merrick’s deformities caused him to wear a hood over his head; Michael’s vitiligo caused him to wear increasingly heavier make-up to mask the depigmentation of his skin.  Both were sensitive human beings who had been labelled as freaks.

The problem with labels – even those applied for purposes of academic study [13] – is that they are too easily misinterpreted even when not intended as uncomplimentary.  Labels set people apart as being “other” than ourselves, as being “other” than normal (whatever that is!)  Labels with negative connotations can result in people being subjected to a different set of societal rules, leading to an unhappy chain of consequences, possibly culminating in marginalisation and even persecution.  I’m personally not a fan of such labels, no matter the context of their application.

Merrick’s story is ultimately one of tragedy – the kind that happens to people who appear to have done nothing to deserve that which life has visited on them, and, in dealing with their adversities, expose some of the insidious ills of so-called “civilised” society.  “Man’s inhumanity to man; that’s what war’s all about,” Michael said in the Ebony/Jet interview. [14]

Michael Jackson’s life was a triumph over his strict upbringing and demands of a working childhood, and his own indefatigable work ethic and relentless perfectionism.  Yet he too wanted to be able to take his rest like ordinary men; to lay down his head at the end of a day of rehearsal, and get a good night’s sleep.

Viewed from this perspective, the desire for normalcy in lives that were anything but “normal” caused the deaths of both Merrick and Jackson. – Merrick in accidentally (or purposely) laying down his heavy head, Michael Jackson with his insistence on Propofol to induce sleep.

Yet what is there really in terms of similarities between these two men?  Not age, ethnicity, nationality nor even inhabiting the same era in history.  One lived in an institution, the other rented luxury mansions.  Jackson had a family of his own, Merrick did not, apart from his circle of friends and visitors at the hospital.  Michael Jackson wept over Merrick’s story; we’ve wept over Jackson’s mistreatment by his father, the media and extortionists, and at his tragic passing.  Whether showing or receiving empathy, the two men are tied together by their humanity.

As are we all.  Joseph Merrick and Michael Jackson teach us a lesson the human race has been long in learning – that difference does not make one less worthy of our understanding and compassion.

“Life is too precious and too short not to reach out and touch the people we can” – Michael Jackson. [15].

Kerry Hennigan
October 2017


[1]          Poem used by Joseph Merrick to end his letters, adapted from “False Greatness” by Isaac Watts  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Merrick#cite_note-pamphlet-9

[2]          “Persisting Misidentification of the “Elephant Man” Disease” in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine http://jabfm.org/content/24/1/112.full

[3]          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Merrick

[4]          Virgin Media, Michael Jackson Myths http://www.virginmedia.com/entertainment/news/2015/10/michael-jackson-myths.html  retrieved 15.08.2017.

[5]          Los Angeles Times Jackson Bids for Elephant Mans Remains http://articles.latimes.com/1987-05-30/entertainment/ca-3547_1_elephant-man retrieved 14.08.2017

[6]          Katherine Jackson with Richard Wiseman, “My Family, the Jacksons” St Martin’s Press 1990 accessed at http://jetzi-mjvideo.com/books-jetzi-04/kj/kj16.html

[7]          CBC Digital Archives, Michael Jackson bids for the elephant man http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1862378797 retrieved 14.08.2017

[8]          Ebony/Jet interview 1987 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDb5fUZPxZQ

Transcript of the interview: https://mjjjusticeproject.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/1987-michael-jackson-ebonyjet-interview/

[9]          http://www.playbill.com/article/david-bowie-mark-hamill-billy-crudup-and-bradley-cooper-a-look-at-the-elephant-man-stars-throughout-the-years-com-335898

[10]        Virgin Media Michael Jackson Myths

[11]        Documentary “Meet the Elephant Man” reveals how modern research using Merrick’s bones has aided understanding the disease he suffered and how to help people inflicted with this condition today.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWJSoiyXf1Q&t=1076s

[12]        Michael Jackson, Moonwalk (1988) Arrow Books 2010 paperback edition.

[13]        Raphael Raphael, “Dancing with the Elephant Man’s Bones” in Michael Jackson: Grasping the Spectacle, edited by Christopher R. Smit, Routledge 2012 accessed via https://goo.gl/Qx66At

[14]        Ebony/Jet interview 1987

[15]        Michael Jackson, Moonwalk