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Charles Byrne (1761-83)

Charles Byrne was born in southern Ireland. Measuring over 8 feet tall as a young man, he began promoting himself as a ‘freak’ curiosity at country fairs and village greens. Having toured Scotland and northern England, he arrived in London in 1782, where he was an immediate success, attracting numerous visitors from all classes and charging 2s 6d (12½p) for admittance.

After his initial success, Byrne was replaced by other novelties, and having lost most of his investments, lived in increasing poverty. He died on 1 June 1783, at the age of 22, his death partly attributed to excessive drinking. Although no evidence in the form of a will has been found, newspaper reports at the time stressed Byrne’s horror at the thought of his body falling into the hands of one of the many anatomists who were keen to acquire it. He arranged with friends to seal his body in a lead coffin, for burial at sea.

But, while his casket was buried at sea, Byrne’s body was not in it. The undertaker had been bribed and the body removed from the coffin. Competition among anatomists to obtain the body was widely reported in the press, driving up the price. John Hunter obtained the body for a sum rumoured to be over £500. To avoid detection, he hurriedly chopped the body into pieces, and boiled it down into the bones. Only after four years did Hunter admit to having the skeleton of Charles Byrne. In Joshua Reynolds’s famous portrait of Hunter, the legs of a giant skeleton, thought to be Byrne’s, can be seen in the background. Byrne’s skeleton can still be found today on display at the Royal College of Surgeons.

 

Bibliography

H Mantel, The Giant (London: Macmillan, 2007)

W Moore, The Knife Man (London: Bantam Press, 2005)

Glossary:

Anatomy

A branch of medical science concerned with the structure of living organisms.