Freak shows of any variety were a mainstay in the entertainment of London society in Georgian times (1700s), the odder and more extreme the better.
In 1781 George Byrne left his home in Northern Ireland to join ‘the circus’.
Byrne – or as he was better known, The Irish Giant, claimed to be somewhere between 8ft 2inches and 8ft 4inches (2.48-2.54m ) though skeletal evidence suggests he was around 7ft 7inches (2.31 metres). Interestingly, legend tells us, his parents, of more modest stature, made love high up in a haystack and it was thus George’s lofty conception that caused him to be so tall.
On arrival in London, intent on making a fortune, he joined Cox’s Museum. James Cox, in addition to being a jeweller and goldsmith, ran a small museum of curiosities which in addition to Byrne included Oliver Cromwell’s head.
The Irish Giant was an instant success, even with the king and queen. As 1782 newspaper reported:
“However striking a curiosity may be, there is generally some difficulty in engaging the attention of the public; but even this was not the case with the modern living Colossus, or wonderful Irish Giant ……….. descriptions must fall infinitely short of giving that satisfaction which may be obtained on a judicious inspection”.
Not everyone was as impressed though and Sylas Neville, a prominent physician at the time commented thus:
“Tall men walk considerably beneath his arm, but he stoops, is not well shaped, his flesh is loose, and his appearance far from wholesome. His voice sounds like thunder, and he is an ill-bred beast, though very young – only in his 22nd year.”
Neville and his ilk were in a small minority and success continued for Byrne who commanded a viewing fee of 2/6d per person – an amazing amount for 1782. Unsurprisingly it was not long until Byrne had competition, many from Ireland, including some claiming to be lineal descendants of legendary Irish monarch, Brian Boru.
Unable to handle his success and having been robbed of GBP700 (his total earnings since arriving in London), Byrne took to the drink and died in 1783, aged 22.
Enter John Hunter.
Hunter was an esteemed surgeon and by the time of Byrne’s death already surgeon to King George III. In 1790 he was appointed British Surgeon General by the then Prime Minister, William Pitt. More relevant to Byrne’s case was that Hunter was an avid collector of anatomical specimens and not averse to having curiosities (scientific oddities) in his own collection. Hunter resolved to have the Irish Giant in his collection. Whether Hunter’s desire to secure Byrne’s remains was driven purely by his scientific interests or (even in part) a desire to have Byrne merely for his curiosity value will, I imagine, never be known.
It is alleged (there is no first hand evidence) that Byrne’s deathbed wish was that he be buried at sea in a lead coffin, specifically to avoid his body falling into Hunter’s hands.
Certainly, Hunter was not the only surgeon after Bryne’s cadaver. As one newspaper reported:
“The whole tribe of surgeons put in a claim for the poor departed Irish Giant, and surrounded his house just as Greenland harpooners would an enormous whale. One of them has gone so far as to have a niche made for himself in the giant’s coffin, in order to his being ready at hand, on the “witching time of night, when church-yards yawn””.
In any event Hunter secured the Irish Giant’s cadaver and quickly boiled it down to produce a skeleton. It is not known for sure how Hunter got the cadaver but it is generally thought that he bribed a member of the funeral party to replace the body with stones and give him the body very shortly after death and certainly before the casket “full of stones” was put on display prior to it being buried at sea.
Hunter did produce a scientific description of the anatomy and skeleton and a significant amount of scientific analysis has been carried out on Bryne’s skeleton since. In 1787 the skeleton was put on display and so it remains, now in the Hunterian Museum, in the Royal College of Surgeons in London where you can see it today.
As I have indicated in my separate review of the Hunterian Museum, Byrne’s skeleton is the most controversial item on display and there are regular calls for it to be buried at sea in accordance with the supposed wishes of Byrne.
It is, certainly today, pretty much universally accepted that museums should not display human remains against the wishes of individuals, their families and, where relevant, local communities.
In accordance with this policy skeletal displays of the ‘Hottentot Venus’ (Saartjie Baartman) and Truganini, the last Tasmanian Aborigine were accepted by as being inappropriate and taken down in the 1970s by the Muséum d’histoire naturelle d’Angers, France and the Royal Society of Tasmania, Australia respectively. Turganimi’s body was cremated and her ashes scatted in accordance with her wishes in 1976 and Baartman was laid to rest in 2002 in the Gamtoos Valley of South Africa.
In 2002, some of Turganimi’s hair and skin were found in the collection of the Royal College of Surgeons and returned to Tasmania for burial.
The Royal College of Surgeon’s (aka the Hunterian Museum) are not of the view that Byrne’s wishes have been disrespected and as such his skeleton remains on display.
“At the present time, the museum’s Trustees consider that the educational and research benefits merit retaining the remains.” – museum director.
I am sure my reader with draw their own conclusion on Byrne and on the return of museum exhibits to their “rightful” owners more generally – a topic which most travellers must ponder on a regular basis.
While there are many pictures of The Irish Giant’s skeleton online, I complied with the no photography requirements of the Hunterian Museum and instead offer you a contemporary cartoon of Byrne by Thomas Rowlandson, an artist and caricaturist of the day.
Fuller details on the Hunterian Museum are included in my main and general review on the Museum – The Hunterian Museum. I highly recommend a visit.
This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries based on many trips to London. I suggest you continue with my next entry – Thief Taker General – Hunterian Museum– or to start the loop at the beginning go to my introductory entry – London…as much of life as the world can show.