An article in the British Medical Journal this week has reopened the debate about whether the skeleton of Charles Byrne, the ‘Irish Giant’, should be removed from the London museum where it has been on display for almost 200 years and buried at sea, as was his wish.
Byrne, who reputedly grew to more than eight feet tall, was born near the border of County Derry and County Tyrone in 1761, not far from the shores of Lough Neagh.
From an early age his exceptional height gained him local fame and his impoverished parents were persuaded to appoint a manager to exhibit him as a ‘curiosity’ for money.
Joe Vance took Byrne to London in April 1782 to seek his fortune, where he took on the name Charles O’Brien and quickly attained celebrity status, mingling with the rich and famous, even entertaining the court of King George III.
But his day-to-day life was rather more mundane, remaining in a room in Spring Gardens, Charing Cross for hours on end while a constant stream of customers paid two-shillings-and-six-pence a turn to gawp at him.
One of those most intrigued by Byrne was the experimental surgeon John Hunter. On perceiving that the young man’s condition was taking its toll and was potentially fatal, Hunter became obsessed with acquiring Byrne’s body.
The Irish Giant’s deteriorating health coincided with fading public interest as Londoners’ fickle attention-spans found new diversions. By autumn the queues to see him had dwindled and he was forced to move to cheaper lodgings and drop his ticket prices.
By spring 1783, Byrne was increasingly fearful of ending up on Hunter’s dissection table or that of any other of London’s growing band of anatomists. This, plus the need to dull the pain caused by his condition, prompted him to turn to drink more and more. He made his friends promise that in the event of his death his body should be sealed in a coffin and buried at sea.Byrne’s life savings – the then considerable sum of £770 – were stolen from him while he was drunk in April 1783. On 1 June 1783, he died, aged 22.
According to a report in The Morning Herald dated 5 June 1783, “The whole tribe of surgeons put in a claim for the poor departed Irish Giant, and surround his house, just as Greenland harpooners would an enormous whale”.
Byrne’s friends set off with his coffin to Margate to carry out his wishes but through an accomplice Hunter had the body switched for rocks halfway and when it was returned to him he transported it to his house in Earls Court. There he chopped Charlie Byrne into pieces, boiled him up in a giant copper vat and later reconstructed the skeleton.
Such was the frenzy of press speculation about what had come of Bryne that it was only four years later that Hunter confided in a letter to his friend Joseph Banks, “I lately got a tall man”.
Byrne’s feet can be seen dangling in the background of the famous portrait of Hunter (right) painted by his neighbour Sir Joshua Reynolds.
When he judged that the hysteria around Bryne’s fate had subsided, Hunter made the skeleton of the Irish Giant the centrepiece of the museum he had opened up between Charing Cross and Leicester Square in 1785 and which desperately needed funding.
When Hunter died in 1793, the skeleton, along with the rest of Hunter’s collection was purchased by the British government and eventually given to the Royal College of Surgeons, which has had it on display in the Hunterian Museum ever since.
This week Len Doyal, emeritus professor of medical ethics at Queen Mary, University of London, and Thomas Muinzer, a lawyer at the School of Law, Queen’s University, Belfast, issued the latest call for the seven-foot seven-inch skeleton to be buried at sea “as Byrne intended for himself”.
“The fact is that Hunter knew of Byrne’s terror of him and ignored his wishes for the disposal of his body. What has been done cannot be undone but it can be morally rectified,” they wrote in their BMJ paper. “Surely it is time to respect the memory and reputation of Byrne: the narrative of his life, including the circumstances surrounding his death… As a sign of respect for Byrne’s original desires, his skeleton should be buried at sea as part of a ceremony commemorating his life.”
However, Hunterian Museum director Dr Sam Alberti rejected the call, saying the value of the remains to living and future communities, currently outweighs the benefits of carrying out Byrne’s apparent request to dispose of his remains at sea.
“A vivid example of the value of having access to the skeleton is the current research into Familial Isolated Pituitary Adenoma (FIPA). This genetically links Byrne to living communities, including individuals who have requested that the skeleton should remain on display in the museum.
“At the present time, the museum’s Trustees consider that the educational and research benefits merit retaining the remains.”
This article also draws on The Knife Man, Wendy Moore’s excellent biography of John Hunter.