Hi all, for the following – extended run of blogs prior to season two of the podcast I did promise to keep away from plagues. This tale does discuss doctors, and premature death. If this is not your cup of tea right now I understand. Please scan through some of my other essays on the sidebar for a range of other topics – Simone.
Charles Byrne, it was fair to say, had not been feeling well for some time. At the age of twenty two, the Derry native had made – and lost – a tidy sum of money in London in quite a short space of time. When he had first arrived in 1782 people in the streets marveled as he walked along the street – occasionally casually reaching up to a lit gas lamp to light his pipe, or stooping to walk under a street sign. People may stare, but hell – when life gives you lemons what can you do other than make a little lemonade? Charles had come to the big smoke, first via Scotland– in the footsteps of fellow Irishman Patrick Cotter O’Brien – to make his fortune as a human exhibit. Someone to be looked up to, talked about, stared at – he was London’s hottest ticket in 1782.
Allegedly eight feet four inches – though in all likelihood maybe a little over seven foot seven – Charles was a sight to behold. Billed as ‘The Irish Giant’, Byrne charged 12 ½ p per person to see him, and in the early days of his act the pennies added up. Londoners were astounded by this real life colossus, who played night after night to packed out rooms. Charles Byrne was living comfortably for a short while – even making enough that he could make a few investments. At the age of 21 the sky was the limit for Charles Byrne, an acromegalic giant who began life an average sized kid, later going through a series of growth spurts. By 22 Charles was yesterday’s news. Work dried up. Byrne’s investments failed. Byrne began drinking. He moved to cheaper, less hospitable lodgings where his tuberculosis (he was a ‘lunger’) flared up. His condition caught the attention of the eminent surgeon John Hunter – a man responsible for much of what we know now of microbial diseases, bone growth, the lymphatic system, even artificial insemination. His work alongside Edward Jenner on smallpox began immunology. That day Hunter was not interested in curing Byrne, he offered to buy his body. Horrified and disgusted, Byrne threw Hunter out of his home. Though he would not leave a will, he made it very clear to his circle of friends his body was not to be put on display by some surgeon, museum or carnival barker. He had been gawked at, by necessity, by thousands of Londoners in his short life. He refused to let that be his eternal fate.
When Charles Byrne died on July 1st 1783 the anatomists swarmed Byrne’s home, in the words of a newspaper of the day “just as harpooners would an enormous whale”. A plan was made by his friends to push past them, retrieve his body from the funeral home, and take his coffin out to sea, in the seaside town of Margate. They would give Charles a burial at sea. This is exactly what they did.
Then four years later John Hunter exhibited a skeleton of an acromegalic giant, a little over seven feet seven tall. Hunter had managed to bribe a funeral home employee with £500, around £76,000 in 2020 money, to steal Byrne’s body and fill his coffin with rocks. For a little over 230 years Charles Byrne remained on display for all to see. In 2018 the Hunter museum closed, and people put forward the suggestion now was the time to lay Charles down in a coffin, take him out to Margate, and allow him his final wish. As far as I’m aware this has yet to happen.
Patrick Cotter O’Brien paid close attention to the fate of his countryman – and when he passed in 1806 he made sure he was buried under 12 feet of solid stone, so no one could snatch his remains. In 1906, 1972 and finally 1986 he would be temporarily dug up and his bones would be examined. At a verified eight foot one in middle age he is the first verifiable eight footer in history.