Back in the mid 18th century an oddity was born in Ireland who if he lived over 200 years later would have likely been one of Irish basketball’s best hopes. In a dwarfish country stunted by lack of access to nutritious foods, Charles Byrne stood out. He was believed by many to be over eight feet tall though skeletal evidence put him at 2.31m, which at seven foot seven was still head, shoulders and much of the upper torso over most of his contemporaries. Byrne did not have access to a better diet than others around him. It was a gene mutation caused by a pituitary tumour that caused the growth. He died in 1783 aged just 22 though it wasn’t the tumour that killed him.
Byrne lived 21 of those 22 years in Tyrone, born of unexceptional stock. The sly gossips said the reason for his height was his parents had a love affair on top of a huge haystack and this lofty situation somehow affected conception. No one said this to his face - if they could up into it. Although acknowledged as a freak of nature, Charles Byrne wasn’t generally treated as one. Australian historian Patrick O’Farrell said the Irish treated everyone on their merits. Writing about the Irish in Australia, O’Farrell noted that because they never tried to paternalise their relationship with Aborigines they never looked down on them as the WASPs did and instead treated them as equals. Byrne left Tyrone not ashamed of his freakdom but wanting to exploit it. His parents knew he could better capitalise on his status elsewhere.
His exceptional size had attracted a nearby carpetbagger named Joe Vance from Coagh. Vance wanted to astound Europe with Byrne. The pair arrived in London in 1782, and Byrne transfixed the capital as Vance’s creation “the Irish Giant”. He took a room next door to the fabled Cox’s Museum at Charing Cross. The choice was not accidental. James Cox was a jeweller and toy maker who exported luxury European items to the Far East. When China suddenly banned his goods, he turned his unsaleable cargo of exotic clocks, watches and earrings into a museum of “automata” which opened in 1772. This museum became known for its extravagant assemblage and quickly became “a seductive metaphor and a compelling stage for debating the troublesome issues of political and economic stability.”
While Cox had sold up by the time Byrne moved to London, his museum retained an aura that Vance knew he could capitalise on. Byrne entertained audiences next door for seven hours a day, six days a week. His gracious airs made him the talk of the town. Within a few weeks, Byrne was entertaining the Royal Family, members of the nobility and his baffling condition was examined by the Royal Society. When a fellow freak, Count Joseph Boruwlawski known as the “Polish Dwarf” met Byrne in London, their surprise was equal. As Boruwlawski remembered, Byrne was a moment speechless, “viewing me with looks of astonishment; then stooping very low to present me his hand, which easily have contained a dozen like mine, he made a very polite compliment. Had a painter been present, the contrast of our figures might have suggested to him the idea of an interesting picture; for having come very near him, the better to show the difference, it appeared that his knee was nearly upon level with the top of my head.”
Flushed with success, Byrne moved to Piccadilly where he continued to work six days a week (Sundays excepted). Admittance for ladies and gentlemen was 2s. 6d, children and “servants in livery” had to fork out a shilling. Vance and Byrne grew wealthy on the profits. By early 1783 the fickle public were tiring of the Irish Giant. News of his success drew other tall men to London including the Gigantic Twin Knipe brothers who were born only five miles away from Byrne in Tyrone. Another Irishman was advertised as a giant “upwards of Four Inches taller than the noted Burn”. Byrne’s problems were compounded by his love of gin and whiskey. He was frequently drunk on stage and cancelled many performances. Vance was forced to drop prices and soon everyone was paying the livery price of a shilling.
On 23 April 1783, Byrne went on a “lunar ramble” at the Black Horse public house. He fell asleep drunk and someone stole £700 from his pockets – his entire savings. Devastated, he redoubled his drinking and contracted tuberculosis. He deteriorated badly in May and died on 1 June 1783. In his final days his biggest fear was not death but the surgeons’ thirst for his body. His Irish Catholic upbringing gave him a horror of the coroner’s knife which he believed could deny his soul a place in heaven on Judgement Day.
One man had no time for Byrne’s scruples on the matter. His name was John Hunter, Surgeon Extraordinary to King George III. Hunter was a pivotal influence on modern surgery with his method and dissected thousands of cadavers he got from “resurrection men” – professional grave robbers. From the moment Hunter set eyes on Byrne he coveted his body for science. Byrne was aware of Hunter’s ambition and strove to thwart it in his dying days. His instructions were that his coffin should be guarded by Irish friends who would arrange to bury him at sea. Byrne scraped the last of his savings to the undertaker whom he entrusted to carry out the plan.
Hunter meanwhile was determined not to lose out. He employed a man named Howison to watch Byrne’s whereabouts at all times from a next door apartment. When Byrne died, a newspaper reported he wanted his bones “far out of the reach of the chirurgical fraternity”. The chirurgeons were in an arms race of demands for the body. One reportedly offered a ransom of 800 guineas to the undertakers. While the bidding went on, the promoters got one last meal ticket out of Byrne: they displayed his enormous coffin to the public for one shilling. Then on 6 June, the body was taken aboard a ship to Margate where it would be sunk in “20 fathoms of water” in the English Channel. At Margate another boat was chartered and the coffin was tipped into the sea.
But Byrne’s body was no longer in it. The Annual Register for 1873 said the sea burial report was “merely a tub thrown out to the whale.” While the whales had the tub, Hunter had the body. When Byrne died, Howison immediately told his paymaster. Hunter quickly bribed the undertaker for £500 who switched the body with paving stones while the oblivious funeral party was drunk. Hunter took the corpse back to his surgery but became terrified of the revenge of Byrne’s friends if they found out. There was no autopsy. Instead he He chopped up the body and boiled the pieces so only the bones were left. He then hid the huge skeleton for four years until Byrne’s name was forgotten. In his haste, it went brown.
Hunter displayed the Irish Giant in his anatomical collection and was later put it in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. In 1909 American neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing got permission to open Byrne’s skull and he diagnosed the pituitary tumour. Byrne’s discoloured skeleton remains today in the Hunterian where many visitors including the current monarch have been fascinated by his extraordinary size.
Hunter got his way but the fight continues today between his legacy and Byrne’s modern day family anxious to carry out his dying wish. One of those relatives, Brendan Holland said Byrne’s body has been on display for 200 years and it was time for him to receive a proper burial. "He was quite a celebrity and he made a lot of money out of exhibiting himself," Holland said. "It's the person within that's important. It's very unfortunate that he didn't live long enough to understand that." His enthusiasm for a sea burial is not shared by the Hunterian’s current director Sam Alberti. Alberti was reluctant to hand over his star attraction saying “researchers were excited about the potential for future research.”
But the British Medical Journal agrees with the family Byrne has done his time and should be buried at sea. Fellow Northern Irishman and researcher at the school of law at Queen’s University Belfast, Thomas Muinzer wrote in the Journal it was time to respect his memory and reputation. “What has been done cannot be undone but it can be morally rectified,” Muinzer wrote. Mr Muinzer added there was nothing of any more use that could be deduced scientifically from Byrne’s bones. “We have now a full record of Byrne’s DNA and we also have numerous examinations of the skeleton,” he wrote. “With burial law, when you or I stipulate burial wishes in life, we rely on those wishes to be respected. Those wishes don’t have legal force, they have moral force.”