“I am not so handsome as other men.” — Joseph Carey Merrick

June 26, 2009


When I learned last night that Michael Jackson had died, I was at a fair – kiddie rides, foot-long hot dogs, funnel cakes – in a town in Bergen County. I drove about an hour and half to get there — not for the hot dogs, which were fine, but to listen to Noise from the Basement, a band in which my son plays keyboard. I would do it again.

When I got home and checked my blog here on wordpress, I saw that traffic on my journal had already soared beyond the normal number of daily visits – by a factor of eight. This was caused by the death of Farrah Fawcett. Her passing apparently sent many people scurrying to a search engine, and some of their searches tripped over two entries I have made in the past couple of months complaining about the way some of the media and some of the public were reacting to her illness.

It might be fortuitous for Farrah Fawcett’s memory that she and Michael Jackson died almost simultaneously. Because of the complicated life that Jackson led, there is likely to be an endless stream of speculation about the nature of his death, and even some serious commentary on the meaning of his life.

I have to say that Michael Jackson meant nothing to me, one way or the other. I didn’t pay close attention to the coverage of his life, but I did see and hear enough to know that the difference between fact and fiction was difficult to discern. If the far more sedate lives of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and Sir James Matthew Barrie are any example, some of the questions about Jackson’s behavior will never go away.


One small issue in Jackson’s life that did get my attention was the report in 1987 that he had offered to buy the remains of Joseph Carey Merrick, known in popular culture as “John” Merrick, the “elephant man,” a 19th century Englishman who was severely deformed by a disease that has not been conclusively identified. I have spent far more time learning about Merrick than I have ever devoted to Michael Jackson, because I have been interested in Merrick’s determination to achieve some sort of human dignity despite a condition that, through no fault of his own, made it impossible for him to live in society. In fact, he had to be protected from the public. It’s worth noting that Dr. Frederick Treves, who was principally responsible for providing Merrick with a home at London Hospital, had misgivings about his own role in making Merrick something of a darling of British society, including the royal family.

My initial reaction when I heard that Jackson had tried to buy Merrick’s remains was disgust. I couldn’t imagine any legitimate purpose to such a thing, and I felt strongly that Jackson would be violating Merrick’s memory by removing what remains of him from the hospital that gave him the only true sanctuary he ever knew. Although there have been many public reports that Jackson did, indeed, acquire Merrick’s “bones,” my reading indicates that it never happened. Some have claimed that Jackson himself deliberately spread that rumor after having viewed the remains in London, but I haven’t found any substantiation of that idea. The bizarre tones and the uncertainty of this bit of Jackson’s history or legend is a microcosm of the odd and often mysterious biography that will be written and re-written for years to come.

Peter Conrad wrote an interesting essay in The Guardian about Michael Jackson in anticipation of Jackson’s appearance in London next month. It’s at http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/jun/14/michael-jackson

Tammy Paolino — the name is no coincidence — also wrote an insightful piece about the impact of Jackson’s death. It’s at http://blogs.courierpostonline.com/mamadrama/ in an entry dated June 26.


9 Responses to ““I am not so handsome as other men.” — Joseph Carey Merrick”

  1. […] more on Jackson’s death and a strange footnote of his life: https://charlespaolino.wordpress.com/2009/06/26/i-am-not-so-handsome-as-other-men-joseph-carey-merric…  Print This Post |  Email This Post | SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: "What about the […]

  2. Beth Says:

    he was a brilliant man and i love his songs. im only young (not a teen yet) but i love Thriller, Billie Jean, Beat it and Smooth criminal best.

    R.I.P MJ

  3. Mike Says:

    I think Michael wasn’t able to buy Joseph Merrick’s bones because they’re already buried. Staff at the London Hospital told me the Elephant Man’s remains had been buried to preserve his human dignity and are no longer on display.

  4. ronda Says:

    man i love mjj so much he was the best ever and no one i mean no one can ever replace he i cryed so much when i founed out he died it was like my heart was out

  5. Gareth Says:

    I thought Michael Jackson buying the Elephant Man’s remains was a myth.

  6. charlespaolino Says:

    Yes, that’s what my blog says: “Although there have been many public reports that Jackson did, indeed, acquire Merrick’s ‘bones,’ my reading indicates that it never happened.”

  7. SoCalGal Says:

    Yes, it’s a myth that Michael Jackson tried to buy John Merrick’s bones. So many lies were told about Jackson by the tabloids and, worse, mainstream media, that the poor man (Jackson) had no hope of being perceived as anything but “Weird!” “Strange!” “Bizarre!” “Freak!” when he was anything but that. He was kind, gentle, stunningly talented, generous, compassionate and a gift to this world who is gone too soon.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      As I said in the post, I paid almost no attention to Jackson during his career, but I spent too many decades as a journalist and have known too many athletes and entertainers to believe on the face of it anything written about celebrities.

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