Welcome to a special edition of the Fiction Reboot and Daily Dose! Today is the first of a two-part series by best-selling author Tessa Harris. After studying History at Oxford University, Tessa became a journalist and later an editor. Her interest in history has provided her novels with a unique perspective, and in the following feature she delivers the true story of the man as the center of her latest work, The Dead shall not Rest (sequel to The Anatomist’s Apprentice). (Part two of this series may be viewed here)
Published by Kensington Books, the sequel shows us that it isn’t just the living who are prey to London’s criminals and cutpurses. Corpses, too, are fair game – dug up from fresh graves and sold to men of science for dissection. Dr. Thomas Silkstone’s unscrupulous rival, Dr. John Hunter, has learned of the imminent death of eight-foot-tall Charles Byrne, known as the “Irish Giant,” and is obsessed with obtaining the body for his research. When Dr. Hunter is implicated in the horrific murder of a young castrato, Thomas must determine how far the increasingly erratic surgeon will go in the name of knowledge. For as Thomas knows, the blackest hearts sometimes go undetected until it’s too late… The Dead Shall Not rest,
No Peace for the Dead: a Modern Dilemma (Part 1)
At the centre of a new novel, The Dead Shall Not Rest, is the true story of a man whose fate has implications for us all, argues its author Tessa Harris
Before I’d ever heard of Charles Byrne, let alone decided to put him at the centre of my second novel, I thought that ‘giants’ were the stuff of legends and fairy stories. I had no idea they were actually real. In Ireland, where most of them seemed to originate, they were revered in folklore not as freaks but as poets and kings. In Georgian England and Scotland, however, the public paid to gawp at them. I was aware that bearded ladies, dwarfs and conjoined twins were always popular attractions, but giants? All my preconceived notions were, however, swept aside when I began researching the life, and death, aged just 22, of Mr Byrne, also known as the Irish Giant.
What I now know is that exceptionally tall men, some well over seven feet in height, did exist and, what’s more, many of them seem to have been born in Ireland in the 18th century. What is equally remarkable is that there are ‘tall men’ in Ireland to the present day. Was there any connection?
In Tipperary there was Corny Magrath, who was born in 1736 and died in 1760. Then there were the Knipe Brothers, who were Byrne’s contemporaries and lived nearby on the Derry-Tyrone county border. Another Irish giant who came to London shortly after Byrne was Patrick Cotter, who claimed to be even taller than his older rival. Rumor had it that all these giants were conceived on top of a haystack.
Apart from their Irish origins and their height, there is one other factor that unites Magrath, Byrne and Cotter – they all attracted the unwanted attentions of anatomists. Magrath made friends with students from nearby Trinity College, Dublin, probably in the hope that they would not dissect his corpse. But his trust was misplaced. The story goes that mourners at his wake were all drugged and his body was stolen. After dissection, his bones were preserved. They remain at the college to this day.
Patrick Cotter also had a terrible fear of dissection and went to great lengths to avoid the knife men. According to his wishes he was buried in three tightly-sealed coffins: the interior one of wood, the second of lead and the third a spectacular contraption known as ‘Mr Panting’s stupendous coffin.’ The entire assemblage measured nine feet long and three feet wide.
Fourteen men were needed to lift it to its final resting place beneath a Roman Catholic Church in Trenchard Street , Bristol. The coffin was lowered down a twelve-foot shaft, cut through solid rock and the grave was sealed in concrete.
The plan worked and for a century his remains laid undisturbed until 1906 when new drains were being laid. Cotter’s coffins were accidentally disturbed and, realizing they had stumbled on a curiosity, the contractors alerted the scientists, who carried out a full examination. His remains were again exhumed in 1972 and finally in 1986 when they were cremated after a church service. Despite this, one of his arms still managed to end up in the Hunterian Museum, at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.
A whole host of other giants played the traveling show circuit of 1780- 1820. Avoiding the anatomist’s knife seems to have come with the territory. In an age where many Christians believed it was necessary for the body to be intact for entry into heaven, it is little wonder that dissection held such terror.
Of course none of these hapless men, or indeed their medical stalkers, could possibly have known that a little over 200 years after their deaths, their bodies could actually lead to a 21st century medical breakthrough. Thanks to the preservation of Charles Byrne’s skeleton that hangs on public display in the Hunterian Museum, this is precisely what has happened. Yet the scientific breakthrough the giant’s remains has facilitated has also sparked a passionate ethical debate about how we treat our museum corpses.
The story of Charles Byrne and how he tried so desperately to evade the anatomist’s knife is at the heart of my novel, The Dead Shall Not Rest, the second in the Dr Thomas Silkstone Mystery series. It is a tale that has fascinated and appalled me in equal measure for the past 15 years. Let me explain. As a novelty and a ‘freak,’ Byrne was a celebrity in his own lifetime, feted by the aristocracy and even King George and Queen Charlotte, who met him at Kew Palace. But poor Byrne was not in good health. As well as the condition responsible for his great height (accounts varied from 8ft 2in. to 8ft 4in), an unusual condition called acromegaly that causes the production of too much growth hormone, he may well have been suffering from tuberculosis. He was also an alcoholic.
Determined to get his hands on this unique ‘specimen’, the renowned surgeon and anatomist John Hunter offered Byrne money for the privilege of dissecting him on his death. But the giant was horrified and set about trying to avoid Hunter’s devious and positively outrageous plans to cut up his corpse. Not only did Hunter set his henchman to shadow the beleaguered giant, causing him to move his lodgings several times, but his anatomy students even designed a diving bell to retrieve his coffin should he be buried at sea.
John Hunter was the most prominent of all the anatomists who wanted to dig their knives into Charles Byrne’s corpse. But he was certainly not the only one. The anatomists’ collective thirst for Byrne’s blood at the time is perhaps best summarized by the Morning Herald which declared that: “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.”
The giant’s death was announced in the London press just hours after he died on June 1, 1783. The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that Byrne allegedly requested “that his ponderous remains might be thrown into the sea, in order that his bones might be placed far out of reach of the chirurgical fraternity.” Yet still rumors of the knife men’s devious plots abounded. Another Morning Herald report stated that despite being offered 800 guineas for the body, the undertaker had declined. It went on to say: “The same being rejected, they are determined to approach the church-yard by regular works and terrier-like unearth him!”
Fortunately for Byrne, his friends remained loyal, despite the fact that they did not bury him immediately but charged half a crown to anyone who wished to view his body. On June 5, the strange funeral cortege set off for Margate, where the coffin was due to be lowered into the sea. However, John Hunter refused to give up. The newspapers may have reported accounts of the burial shortly afterwards, but whatever was inside the huge coffin, it was not the body of Charles Byrne.
In her excellent book ‘Knife Man’, historian Wendy Moore believes that Hunter bribed the undertaker. She postulates that the man persuaded the entourage to stop at an inn en route to Kent where the switch was made. The giant’s corpse was returned to London in secret and Byrne’s friends were none the wiser. Fear of reprisal meant that Hunter had to be as quick as he was stealthy. In his haste he boiled the giant’s bones rather than dissect the body. It was four years before he wrote to one of his closest friends about the existence of what he called “the tall man.”
And that is how, 240 years after his death, Charles Byrne’s skeleton is still in the possession of the Hunterian Museum. What’s more it is the star exhibit, marveled at not only by medical students and scientists but even Queen Elizabeth herself. Even in death, history repeated itself! Undoubtedly John Hunter was a visionary and is regarded widely as “the father of modern surgery.” His methods were pioneering and he even dabbled in cryogenics, freezing animals and trying to resuscitate them. (Needless to say he was unsuccessful.) It is generally agreed that he was a far-sighted, if unscrupulous, genius. Nevertheless, not even he could have foreseen the medical breakthrough that was achieved by his unethical treatment of Charles Byrne’s bones.
[To Be Continued]