One of my favorite topics to explore is the terrifying phenomenon of being buried alive (also delightfully known as vivisepulture). It remains one of our supreme dreads, and while for some premature internment may be but a minor inconvenience (remember the thrice buried Monsieur De Civille?), most consider it a hideous possibility. A few will go to great lengths to protect against such a terrifying fate, and this week we’ll examine the tale of the perhaps overly cautious Miss Hannah Beswick, who became more famously known as the Manchester Mummy…
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the educated and uneducated alike were paralyzed with the singular fear of being prematurely buried; the horror of waking up interred and trapped in the tomb or held beneath several feet of soil. It’s not surprising how a prevalent a concern this was. Not only was period medicine having a remarkably difficult time determining the precise moment of death for the recently snuffed, it was also an era where it was extremely easy to die, as cemeteries filled to capacity could testify. The poor, ever the most common victims of hardship and tragedy were not the only ones to fear a botched burial; the wealthy too worried incessantly over such a fate.
History is full of the morbidly paranoid, and Miss Hannah Beswick is a prime example, an old lady with an over-abundance of both money and imagination. In her defense, her brother had purportedly survived a narrow miss in terms of premature entombment, regaining consciousness moments before being dropped in the ground. That was all it took for the old spinster to lay into her will and testament the conditions of insurance against a similar grisly circumstances. With the kind of long-term thinking that would make an Egyptian Pharaoh feel insecure, she enlisted the help of a local reputable doctor to save her from potentially enduring the very worst of her nightmares.
Enter Dr. Charles White. The long-time family physician, and a student of William Hunter (brother to the infamous surgeon John Hunter), it’s clear that Dr. White absorbed the teachings of his mentors in regards to the preservation and curation of anatomical samples. Perhaps his less savory proclivities were unknown to Miss Beswick’s family, perhaps not, but regardless, the orders he received were extremely clear.
Upon her demise he was instructed to check for signs of vitality on a daily basis for at least several years. Rumor had it that people could revive weeks and even months following the supposed death, and Miss Beswick was taking no chances. She paid him 20,000 guineas – an extremely tidy sum, and to Dr. White’s credit following her death in 1758, he kept to his word. Keeping the body at his home, he periodically lifted back a thin veil to review the status of her mortality.
While her distinction as a dead person was soon shown to be somewhat of a foregone conclusion, Dr. White, continuing his vigil, decided it prudent to embalm the old girl using a cocktail favored by his teacher William Hunter, consisting of vermillion, rosemary, turpentine and oil of lavender. Her organs were extracted, her body drained of fluids and cavities supplanted with plaster of Paris. There’s no confirmation that Miss Beswick approved of this procedure, but given the Doctor’s hobby (being a man after my own heart), you can’t blame him for wanting to keep the smell down a bit.
Preservation aside, what she certainly would not have agreed to is becoming a morbid curiosity. Within a short space of time, word spread of Dr. White’s curious specimen and visitors came to gaze upon the emaciated visage of her corpse. In time, he transferred the body to the empty carcass of a grandfather clock where the hatch could be opened for convenient viewing. One cannot ignore the glorious symbolism of placing the cadaver of a wealthy lady in the guts of an upright and elegant time-piece.
Her deathly travels were not over and upon his death in 1813, Dr. White in turn willed her remains to his friend and colleague Dr. Ollier. I truly feel for Ollier, and although I personally would consider the donation of a corpse a real treat, he may not have seen it the same way. Perhaps he was hoping to inherit White’s fine silverware instead.
Nevertheless, the mummy remained in Dr. Ollier’s possession until his own death in 1828 when it was donated to the Manchester Natural History Society. There, the corpse of Miss Beswick took up residence in the highly prestigious location of the entrance hallway, presumably somewhere between the coat-rack and the cafeteria, and probably destined to scare the hell out of postage workers for the next half century.
For the next fifty years she remained a wonderfully strange specimen and exhibit, along with other mummies that were so in vogue during the time of ‘Egyptomania’. In 1867, moved once again to Owen’s College, Manchester, it was finally decided that the rather crunchy old corpse deserved a decent burial.
Performed in secret for fear of grave-robbers retrieving the notorious cadaver, she was finally laid to rest in an unmarked grave in 1868. Given the quality of her preservation by the late, great Dr. Charles White, as far as we know she might yet be intact, the desiccated corpse of a singularly strange old lady, frozen for eternity.
And don’t worry, Miss Beswick. You’re still dead, last we checked.