A Bit of Justice for Cousin Charlie

I am not, in general, a big reader of historical fiction. Not anything against it, I think I’d just rather read the history itself. Nonetheless, when Hilary Mantel died last year I thought I probably ought to check out some of her work. A little leery of wading directly into the Thomas Cromwell books I scanned her bibliography and saw a book called The Giant O’Brien. It rang a small bell and, after a bit of poking around, I found it was about, perhaps, a distant relative.

Said giant was Charles Byrne, who measured over seven-and-a-half feet tall. As chronicled in Mantel’s book, he leaves rural Ireland to go to London and become an attraction. What’s really interesting about the man in the book (whether it tracks reality I don’t know) is that he was very much in control of his exploitation. He’s not a simpleton dragged away from home by someone out to make a quick buck. Rather, he’s well aware of what’s going on and happy to make his way in the world in that manner, with the possibility of a young death hovering over him the whole time.

In the book, Byrne is pursued by a surgeon, John Hunter, who is a collector of “specimens” and wants the giant’s skeleton once he’s dead. Byrne makes it perfectly clear that he doesn’t want this to happen, but is betrayed by the hangars-on that have come with him to London, who eventually make the deal with Hunter for a few hundred pounds. The result was that Byrne’s skeleton was put on display at Hunter’s museum, where it became the most famous part of its collection.

There is some dispute as to how, precisely, Byrne’s bones came into Hunter’s possession – let’s hope he wasn’t so cruelly betrayed – but there’s no doubt Byrne didn’t want to go on display like a museum piece. Nonetheless, he was and there he hung for the next two centuries.

Until just recently. The museum is nearing reopening after several years of renovation and have announced that Byrne’s skeleton will no longer be on public display:

“What happened historically and what Hunter did was wrong,” said Dawn Kemp, a director at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, of which the Hunterian Museum is now part. “How do you redress some of these historical wrongs? The first step is to take Byrne’s skeleton off display.”

The real question now is what else, if anything, should be done with it. On the one hand, if we’re rectifying historical wrongs and Byrne wished not to be a specimen that should be the end of the discussion. On the other, there is something to be said for having Byrne’s bones around for scientific study:

“We shouldn’t think that we now know everything,” said Marta Korbonits, a professor of endocrinology at Queen Mary University in London, who has researched Byrne’s genes.

The research “isn’t done and dusted,” she added.

Indeed, Byrne’s skeleton has offered up new answers as medicine has evolved. In 1909, an American surgeon studied Byrne’s remains, and discovered that he had a tumor in his brain. Then, about a century later, researchers including Dr. Korbonits extracted DNA from Byrne’s teeth and found that he also had a rare genetic mutation that had been unknown until 2006.

“Without the public view, we wouldn’t have made that link,” Dr. Korbonits said.

I’ll admit, I’m a little conflicted. On the one hand, since I believe that a body after death is just meat and bone and the person who it once was is gone, I don’t get too worked up over what people do with dead bodies, particularly at the remove of a couple of centuries. And if there is some broader benefit for mankind that’s a good thing, right? On the other, disrespecting a person’s wishes is a shitty thing to do and it seems if you’re going to right that wrong you have to go all the way.

In the end, there’s no good answer, given the proven good that having Byrne’s skeleton around has done, although I could see a compromise – since we’ve gotten more out of him than we ever should have, maybe it’s time to say “thanks” and let the guy rest? It’s the least we can do for cousin Charlie.

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