Sunday, March 27, 2011

Beswick above-ground

The painting above, "L'Inhumation précipitée" by Antoine Wiertz (1854), depicts a cholera victim awakening after being placed in a coffin (1st image). Like others, I am using it to illustrate the story of Hannah Beswick (1688-1758), who had a fear of premature burial. Because of this, her body was kept above ground for 110 years - yet there are no images of her, either before or after her death.

Beswick did not mention a desire to be embalmed in her will, and it is believed that her family's physician, Dr. Charles White (2nd image) took to extreme her request that she be checked periodically after death for signs of life before being interred.

He preserved her body and placed it in a clock case (example, 3rd image), which was soon stored at his home and shown upon request to visitors - including a young Thomas de Quincy, English author. When Dr. White died in 1813, Beswick's remains passed to another doctor and then, in 1828, to the Museum of the Manchester Natural History Society, where she acquired the nickname of the "Manchester Mummy." Beswick was also known as the "Mummy of Birchen Bower," after a house she lived in (and near which her apparition appears). Her mummy reposed with that of a Peruvian and an ancient Egyptian, and a local historian described, "The body was well preserved but the face was shrivelled and black." After the collections were transferred to Manchester University in 1867, Beswick's mummified body was finally interred. Her grave in Harpurhey Cemetery is unmarked.

Beswick had good reason to be concerned about premature burial. Some time before her own death, her brother John's eyes had flickered at his funeral. Confirmed alive by Dr. White, John regained consciousness a few days later and lived for many more years.

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