The (edited) 2nd blog by ‘Ruth Kowslowski’, from The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes, Chapter 9
On July 5th 1893 an Exhibition of ‘A Collection of Hunterian Relics’ opened at the Royal College of Surgeons, in London. Not the relics of Dr William Hunter, FRS and President of the Royal Academy, but of his younger brother, John, the naturalist and surgeon, born in Lanarkshire in 1729, and died, very suddenly, in London on October 16th 1793.
Amongst the items on display is a ‘Copper, in which the Irish Giant, Charles Byrne, who was exhibited in London as O’Brien the Irish Giant, was boiled.’ The copper was lent by Professor Chiene, of Edinburgh. The catalogue has a further explanatory note: ‘This copper was in Hunter’s house in Earl’s Court and was sold there in 1866 when the house was pulled down. On the death of Byrne in 1783, Hunter obtained his body and macerated it in this copper … The skeleton of Byrne is in the College Museum.’ As indeed it is, to this day.
As for poor Hunter’s sudden death, there is also exhibited the ‘Sofa on which John Hunter died. Whilst speaking at a meeting of the Board of Governors at St George’s Hospital on October 16th 1793, Hunter was contradicted by one of his colleagues. He immediately left off his speech and in an excited state hurried to an adjoining room; where he fell into the arms of Dr Robertson and almost immediately expired.’ Fortunately for him, his body was not macerated in the copper, but was placed in a vault at St Martin’s in the Fields. Of which, more later.
The College Museum has an engraving of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Hunter, and Byrne is thus twice immortalised for, in the top right corner of the portrait and behind Hunter’s head are the lower portions of two gigantic femora and their two feet – the legs of that most famous Tall Man who, from the angle of his skeletal feet, must be standing on tip-toe, perhaps to increase his height even more.
Portrait of John Hunter, miniature copy by Henry Bone RA after Joshua Reynolds, 1798. (My thanks to The Hunterian Museum at The Royal College of Surgeons of England for permission to reproduce this image.)
John Hunter has a square, kindly, thoughtful face and his forehead is broad and tall beneath his curly reddish hair. He doesn’t look like a giant-killer.
To be fair, it seems that poor Charles Byrne, aged 22, height 7 feet 7 inches, drank himself to death. The story of Byrne is well-known, much has been written about him, both fact and fiction. He was born on the Derry/Tyrone border in 1761 and, because those were times when the exhibition of ‘freaks’ was commonplace, Jack Vance, from a neighbouring village, persuaded him that he could get rich if he toured the shows and fairgrounds: a sideshow attraction. On April 11th 1782, Byrne and Vance (self-important as the Giant’s Agent) reached London and on April 24th an advertisement proclaimed ‘Irish Giant. To be seen this and every day this week, in his large elegant room, at the cane shop, next door to late Cox’s Museum, Spring Gardens.’ Admission was half-a-crown. By the late autumn, the public was jaded, the novelty had worn off, the price had dropped and the Giant O’Brien had moved twice, to rooms no longer so large and elegant. A year after his arrival in London, he was robbed outside a pub – of £700, presumably his entire worldly wealth which, for some reason, he was carrying in his pocket.
Despair, too much alcohol, and ill-health – Charles Byrne knew he was dying and somehow he also learnt that the anatomist John Hunter was very keen to obtain a giant’s skeleton. Byrne didn’t want his bones to be boiled, he didn’t want to be exhibited any more, alive or dead. He gave instructions that after his death his body should be watched day and night until a large lead coffin had been built. His body was to be placed in it and it should be carried (how many tonnes would a giant lead coffin weigh?) out to sea and sunk. A newspaper reported after the event that ‘Byrne’s body was shipped on board a vessel in the river last night … to be sunk in 20 fathom water: the body-hunters … have provided a pair of diving bells, with which they flatter themselves they shall be able to weigh hulk gigantic from its watery grave.
No diving bell was needed. Hunter, having sent his assistant Howison as spy, bribed the men whom Byrne had employed to sink him. Fifty pounds, one hundred pounds, the price escalated. Five hundred pounds was later reported as the sum involved. Byrne’s body was removed and carried by hackney coach then Hunter’s carriage to Earl’s Court where, since Hunter feared that his body-snatching would be discovered, Byrne’s body was ‘quickly cut to pieces and the flesh separated by boiling.
‘I lately got a tall man’, Hunter wrote to Sir Joseph Banks.
Presumably John Hunter and Howison (not to be confused with his brother William Hunter’s assistant, William Hewson) boiled and re-assembled the skeleton themselves. Ten years earlier William Hunter had fallen out with Hewson, for Hewson ‘had employ’d a Man to pick Bones out of the Tubs and fit up a Skeleton for him, without Leave’. Benjamin Franklin was called in to settle the dispute (Benjamin was often called in for this purpose). Although Hewson was highly skilled at injecting lymphatics and preparing specimens, he was eventually dismissed – and disinherited.
In Shepherd’s 1840 engraving of the College Museum, Charles Byrne’s skeleton with its smiling skull towers over the other exhibits from the top of a mahogany case. A photograph taken in 1852 shows him prominently displayed.
And so he remains, in the 21st Century, and we think of him kindly and with sympathy. Perhaps finally he has been able to smile at the thought that his story as well as his bones (and a portrait of his feet!) are still preserved and admired nearly 250 years later.
The copper with which Charles Byrne is unfortunately associated was lent to the Exhibition of Hunterian Relics by a Scottish professor; Frank Buckland, Esquire, son of Dean Buckland of Islip, Oxfordshire, lent a Chair. The chair bore a brass plate with the following inscription: ‘This Chair is made from the bedstead of John Hunter…’ Buckland had been given the bedstead by ‘Professor Owen, FRS., etc. who wrote “ … it is the frame of the bedstead in which John Hunter lay when brought from St George’s Hospital”. ’
What a tangled network of old boys’ ties! Owen, of dinosaurs and founder of the Natural History Museum, the devious Owen, a curator of the Hunterian Collection – and Frank Buckland (1826-1880), naturalist, collector, taxidermist, expert on fish and fisheries, and a kindly, well-liked man.
Nearly 100 hundred years after the giant Byrne’s death, in May 1871, Buckland was visited by ‘a strange party from the other side of the Atlantic’: Miss Swan the giantess (7 feet 6 inches) and Captain Martin van Buren Bates, ‘about as tall’, and both aged 24 years old. Bates was ‘a splendid-looking fellow, very unlike pictures of the giant in the “fe fa fum; I smell the blood of an Englishman” legend.’ Not only was Bates splendid, but he and Miss Swan apparently made a splendid couple, too. ‘I make bold to say that Miss Swan is the most agreeable, good-looking giantess that I have ever met,’ Buckland wrote. ‘She is ladylike in manners and address and would be a most agreeable neighbour at a dinner-party.’ He had the opportunity to test this three years later, when he entertained the splendid couple at dinner in honour of their marriage.
Giants came to Britain from all around the world, Chinese, American, Irish and French. Buckland dined with ‘the Chinese Giant’, Chang Woo Gow. Buckland himself was the cause of a ‘breach of discipline’ in his regiment, a spreading roar of laughter one Sunday in 1862, when he appeared on church parade in the company of ‘Brice the French Giant and a dwarf then exhibiting in London.’ Brice, like the skeletal Byrne, was apparently 7 feet 7 inches tall, and a well-proportioned and amiable man. A frequent visitor to Buckland’s house, he gave him a pair of his shoes and a cast of his hand as mementoes. There is a story that ‘A lady dwarf was one day invited to meet him, but with untoward results; the good-natured giant took her up, as a little girl, on his knee, causing an explosion of indignation. “I am nineteen,” she cried, “and to treat me like a baby!” It was long before her ruffled dignity could be appeased.’
As for John Hunter, his body was deposited in the vaults of St Martin’s in the Fields in 1793. In 1859 Frank Buckland determined to find the body of his hero, ‘the greatest of Englishmen’, and spent two weeks searching through the vaults. ‘The stink awful’, he wrote in his diary. Then on February 22nd he ‘found the coffin of John Hunter. At work all the morning and about three in the afternoon found it, the bottom coffin of the last tier but one. It is in excellent condition, and the letters on the brass plate as perfect as the day they were engraved. “John Hunter Esq., died October 16th, 1793, aged 64”.’
On February 23rd, Buckland went down into the vaults again with Professor Owen: ‘I wish I could have made a sketch of him, with his hand on the coffin, looking thoughtfully at it; it would have made an excellent subject.’ Buckland was very ill for several days after this rummaging in the foetid air, but he was well enough to attend the re-interment of Hunter’s coffin (and presumably therefore of Hunter’s bones) at Westminster Abbey in late March.
The photograph that he took of the coffin was presented to the Royal College of Surgeons and displayed in the Hunterian Relics Exhibition, on a stand in the middle of the Library: the furniture and the Copper were placed along the North wall.
Charles Byrne, the Giant O’Brien, smiled inscrutably in the hall downstairs.
(1) Brendan Holland has the same genetic mutation as Charles Byrne: