Sunday, 26 February 2012

The Irish giant faces you head-on as you enter the slightly eerie, mauve-grey light of the museum. The glass cabinets are as sparkly as any expensive parfumerie ... until you realise that the glittering jars and bottles contain body parts and foetuses.
The giant is Charles Byrne who died in 1783 and he shares his glass cabinet with the skeletons of Mr Jeffs (long dead of a painful genetic disorder) and a seven-month foetus.
Byrne, who was 7foot 7inches tall, was one of several Irish giants who exhibited themselves in Georgian England. (He suffered from something called pituitary gigantism.) It cost 2s6d to visit the 22-year-old giant in his genteel apartment at an umbrella shop behind the Mall. Children and liveried servants, 1s.
The giant was in London for barely more than a year. His health deteriorated after he was robbed of his substantial life savings of £700 and he took to drink. Maybe out of loneliness or despair ... or maybe sheer terror. He had already caught the eye of the surgeon John Hunter, founder of this same Hunterian Museum. Who paid a man to follow the ailing giant's every move.
Think of it ... to know that the grave robber covets your body even before you are dead.
The dying giant left instructions that he was to be buried at sea in a lead coffin. But, en route to the coast at Margate, one of his friends was bribed by Hunter to sell him the corpse.
The surgeon boiled the giant's remains down to the skeleton, hid it for four years, then put it on display in the original museum at his house in Leicester Square. There has been some recent controversy about whether the museum should now do the decent thing and belatedly bury the giant at sea. (To be fair to Hunter, he carried out post-mortems on several of his own friends and family and was himself dissected when he eventually died in 1793.)
My first thought was that all this would make a great novel. Then I discovered that Hilary Mantel had the same idea.
But as I was heading for Trafalgar Square, anyway, for the Lucian Freud exhibition, I made a detour to see if I could find the street where the giant had his elegant apartment.
There's no blue plaque ... just government buildings, the back of a hotel, a multi-storey car park. Nothing to see - but I loitered, anyway, fascinated to think that an Irish giant had walked this street in fear 200 years ago.
I went past again on a bus a few days later with my 11-year-old niece and so I told her the story. She looked at me with withering disdain and utter boredom ...
I bet Hilary Mantel has a more receptive family.


Toffeeapple said...

What a macabre museum, is there anything other than body parts in it?

Did you enjoy the Freud exhibition? Don't you think he was marvellous? So many questions...

mary said...

It is rather macabre, Toffeeapple, but it belongs to the Royal College of Surgeons. I didn't stay long but there's paintings and other things, too.
The Freud was indeed marvellous ... but so terribly crowded!

Noelle the dreamer said...

I read your post Mary and felt divided betwixt dismay and hilarity...I can only imagine your niece's thoughts...Still you have such a way with words, readers are sure to find it entertaining!
P.S. I have tremendous respect for the Royal College of Surgeons, but this is an exibition I would skip...Br...

mary said...

I felt almost as if I were colluding in the crime, Noelle ... maybe that's why I made my mini-pilgrimage on the way home!

Darlene said...

That poor man! I've actually gawked at his skeleton during my two visits to the Hunterian but never knew he was being stalked. You're spot on though, Mary, all the makings for a good read are right there.

Surprisingly, the most spine-tingling item on display (to me anyway) are the skulls of children showing a row of adult teeth above the baby ones. That just creeps me right out!

mary said...

That does sound creepy, I missed those, Darlene.
And you've been there twice! All the years I've lived in London and this was my first visit. It's stunningly well-designed.