Merrick spent most of his life in the neighborhoods of South London where Bowie also grew up. Because of his physical appearance, Merrick performed for several years in carnival freak shows where he was eventually 'rescued' by a compassionate surgeon, Dr. Frederick Treves. When Dr. Treves saw Merrick for the first time, a sign in front of Merrick read "The Deadly Fruit of Original Sin." This disturbed Dr. Treves greatly; and he decided to move Merrick to London Hospital in White Chapel.
Merrick lived at London Hospital beginning April, 1890 before dying 4 years later at the age of 27. Dr. Treves wrote of Merrick's death: "He was lying on his back as if asleep and had evidently died without a struggle, since not even the coverlet of the bed was disturbed." The cause of Merrick's death is not known, but it is thought that he tried to lay down to sleep in a normal manner and died of asphyxiation.
Merrick's personality was quite unique; and consequently, he received many visitors including people from the 'elite class' who normally would not even consider being in the same room as someone with a physical disability. A famous British actress, Madge Kendal, befriended Merrick and was considered a very close friend of his until his death.
During his 4 year stay, Merrick built a beautiful model of a church which was made out of cardboard. The model is on display at London Hospital along with Merrick's hat and cloak. While preparing for his role in the play, David Bowie visited London Hospital and was said to be emotionally 'moved' by the display.
Side note: At one time, Michael Jackson attempted to purchase the bones of John Merrick, but he was unsuccessful. Supposedly he had offered several million dollars to acquire them.