Charles Byrne was an eighteenth-century celebrity “Irish giant” who requested burial upon nearing death, but whose corpse was procured against his wishes by the surgeon John Hunter. Hunter reduced Byrne’s corpse to its skeleton and exhibited it as the centerpiece of his vast anatomical collection. It has since remained on display in the Hunterian Museum, London. In 2011 it was announced that research conducted on the skeleton’s DNA has revealed that several Northern Irish families share a common ancestry with Byrne. This article considers the legal issues raised by Byrne’s story. The results of fieldwork undertaken by the author in Byrne’s native townland are also discussed, where folk tradition suggests that Byrne wished to be buried foremost at a local site remembered today as “the Giant’s Grave.”Muinzer notes that a body snatcher for Hunter
had Byrne’s body secretly swapped in its coffin for dead weight as the [burial] party stopped over-night to rest, and a further accomplice covertly transported the corpse thence to Hunter. Hunter immediately reduced Byrne’s body to its bones by stripping the flesh in a large boiling cauldron. He then hid the remains away so that any evidence implicating him in the misdeed was out of sight. When things had settled down, he bound the bones together in their correct skeletal arrangement, studied the skeleton, and wrote up his findings. Four years passed before Hunter revealed publically that the skeleton had become a part of his collection of anatomical specimens, and interested parties were invited to view the Irishman’s remains.
Today Hunter’s enormous specimen collection, the Hunterian Museum, is open to the public free of charge in the Royal College of Surgeons, London. At its center, in a towering, illuminated display case, is the skeleton of Charles Byrne. Len Doyal and the present author have argued in the British Medical Journal that the skeleton ought to be removed from public display and that the remains ought to be buried in accordance with Byrne’s wishes. Byrne’s position at the center of the Hunterian Collection perhaps brings to mind one of Hunter’s own aphorisms, “No man ever was a great man who wanted to be one.”