Saturday, 31 January 2015

A Living Colossus; the Surprising Irish Giant - Charles Byrne (1761-1783), the Hunterian Museum, London

HRH visits Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant, at the Hunterian museum. The tiny skeleton  standing next
to Byrne belongs to Caroline Crachami  the Sicilian Fairy.

“June 1.  At London, aged 22, Byrne, the famous Irish giant. His death is said to have been precipitated by excessive drinking. His body was carried to Margate, in order to thrown into the sea, agreeable to his own request; he having been apprehensive that the surgeons would anatomise him. Byrne, in August 1780, measured exactly 8 feet; in 1780 he had gained 2 inches; and after his death he measured 8 feet 4 inches.”

The Scots Magazine, June 1783

“The whole tribe of surgeons put in a claim for the poor departed Irishman and surround his house just as Greenland harpooners would an enormous whale.”
The Morning Herald, June 1783


Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant, died of grief and gin at the age of 22 after his pocket was picked of his £700 life savings when he was out boozing on the London streets. £700 was a lot of money in 1783 and Byrne had amassed his small fortune exhibiting himself in freak shows. He was born in Drummullan in County Tyrone in 1761 the offspring of a mixed marriage between an Irish father and a Scottish mother. At the age of 20 a local huckster, Joe Vance, convinced his parents to let him start showing Byrne at local fairs and then travelled with him to London via Scotland (at Edinburgh “he alarmed the watchmen at the North Bridge one morning by lighting his pipe at one of the lamps without even standing on tiptoe,” according to the 1922 edition of the DNB).

In London he was a great success, exhibiting himself at Cox’s museum, living next door in an apartment with custom built furniture, above the cane shop in Spring Garden Gate. He was on show from 11am to 3pn and 5pm to 8pm six days a week and became, briefly, the talk of the town, visited by everyone from the King and Queen and the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. By November 1782 London was beginning to lose interest; Byrne moved from Cox’s in Charing Cross to the Hampshire Pig in Piccadilly and reduced the entrance fee to 2 shillings and six for Ladies and Gentlemen and 1 shilling for children and servants in livery. Byrne’s allure was further reduced when a rival Irish Giant, Patrick Cotter threatened to remove to London from his home in Bristol and then, even worse, a pair of 7 foot 2 Irish identical twins, the Knipes, also pitched up unexpectedly. The original Irish giant took to drink and was relocated again to Cockspur Street in Charing Cross where the price of admittance was reduced to 1 shilling for all.      

Charles Byrne in the company of the Knipe twins and various dwarfs and Lord Monboddo
In April 1783 disaster struck when Byre took himself on a “lunar ramble and was tempted to visit the Black Horse, a little public house facing the Kings Mews.” By the time he got home, and when it was too late to do anything about it, Byrne found that he had been robbed of the £700 in banknotes that he carried around with him under the impression that no one would dare to steal from a giant. The loss devastated him and made him drink even more. To add to his woes he had developed a serious cough which showed all the signs of being consumption. He managed to stagger on through May but died at Cockspur Street on the first of June.

Byrne's skull
Several noted collectors of anatomical curiosities had shown an interest in acquiring his body but Byrne was horrified at the thought of being butchered and displayed after his death. He left instructions that he was to be buried at sea in a lead coffin. John Hunter bribed one of Byrnes associates £500 to get the body for him. Byrnes friends seem to have been a mercenary lot – during the wake they displayed his corpse in its eight foot coffin to all comers for 2 and 6 (note that in death he commanded the same fee as at the height of his fame). At an overnight stop on the way to the Kent coast at Margate Byrne was removed from the coffin and dispatched back to Hunter in London whilst the empty casket was filled with rocks to imitate the weight of the dead man. Whilst the rock filled coffin was being dropped into the sea from fishing boat Byrne was back on his way to London where Hunter carefully sectioned his corpse before boiling it in a large copper vat to remove the flash.

Campaigners are currently trying to get the Royal College of Surgeons to surrender Byrne's skeleton in order to fulfill his last wishes and bury him at sea. In December 2011 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, wrote to the British Medical Journal calling for the skeleton to be buried at sea "as Byrne intended for himself". Dr Sam Alberti, director of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, rejected the call, saying "The Royal College of Surgeons believes that the value of Charles Byrne's remains, to living and future communities, currently outweighs the benefits of carrying out Byrne's apparent request to dispose of his remains at sea.”

Charles Byrne's wake from the University of Warwick website