"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Mummy of Manchester

For generations, mummies have been a source of morbid fascination. They are a staple of museum displays, where crowds eagerly gaze at these eerily well-preserved bodies, revering them as tangible links to the remote past. Usually when we think of human mummies, we think of ancient Egypt. 18th century English ladies do not often come to mind.

Today's post is out to remedy this omission.

Our story opens at Birchen Bower Farm, a pleasant rural home near the Lancashire village of Hollinwood. Its residents were John Beswick and his half-sister Hannah. John, by virtue of both inheritance and hard work, was a wealthy man. However, while still a young adult, his health began to fail so badly that he was forced to give up all labor and retire to the quiet of Birchen Bower. He died in 1737, leaving most of his considerable estate to Hannah.

Although Hannah was now essentially alone in the world, she was an intelligent and strong-minded woman who had no trouble assuming control not only of Birchen Bower, but of the numerous nearby properties her brother had owned. Hannah never married, but her local "lady of the manor" status earned her the respectful nickname of "Madame Beswick."

Life ran on without incident until 1745 and the famed Jacobite Rebellion. Alarmed by the reports of how Bonnie Prince Charlie's Highlanders were on the march through Lancashire, Madame prudently buried what were described as "great sums" of money and other valuables around her home. On a more eccentric note, after the danger had passed, Hannah not only allowed her treasure to remain buried, she stubbornly refused to tell anyone where it was hidden.

There were no further disruptions to Hannah's quiet and prosperous existence until she reached her fifties. Her health deteriorated to the point where she could no longer manage Birchen Bower. She retired to a small cottage. Her last years were dull and rather lonely. Hannah's relatives dropped in on her occasionally, but her only regular visitor was her personal physician, Charles White. He did much to keep the rapidly failing woman comfortable, both physically and emotionally.

Charles White

Just before Hannah passed away in 1758 at the age of about 70, she promised that if her relatives brought her back to Birchen Bower to die, she would finally reveal where she had hidden her valuables. Unfortunately, she expired before they could carry out her request, leaving the mystery unsolved. Her will left Birchen Bower to a cousin on her mother's side. Upon that cousin's death, the manor was to pass to the cousin's daughter, then to Charles White. As it happened, White outlived both these women, so the estate eventually came into his possession.

Hannah's funeral was her first full leap into The Weird. That's because, to put it simply, she didn't have one. Like many people of her era, Madame had a terror of premature burial. To avoid this horrific fate, she instructed that her body be kept "above ground" long enough to ensure against any nasty surprises. The faithful Dr. White was entrusted with carrying out this unusual provision.

The doctor did so, and then some. For reasons best known to himself, he embalmed Hannah's corpse with a tar-based preparation of his own invention, then swathed the body with a large bandage, leaving only the face exposed.  This modern-day mummy rested for two years at the ancestral home of her family, Cheetwood Hall. Afterwards, White took possession of the body, proudly exhibiting it at his home in Manchester. When he retired, he settled in The Priory, his country residence in Cheshire. Hannah's mummy came with him, where it found an honored spot in White's private museum, sharing space with anatomical subjects and bizarre curios of various types. Hannah rested in the case of a grandfather clock. The clock-face had been removed, allowing the curious to get a refreshing peep of Hannah's dessicated features. According to Thomas De Quincey--whose mother had been a friend of Dr. White--Hannah had left the request that once a year, White and two other "witnesses of credit" should make a formal examination of her mummy, evidently just to reassure Hannah that she was still dead. De Quincey wrote that as a child, he himself had been allowed to view the mummy, a sight that filled him with "inexpressible awe." Alas, De Quincey added, in White's later years, he kept the "departed fair one" from the public eye.

It is not surprising that Hannah's non-burial inspired any number of more-or-less outlandish legends. Birchen Bower developed the reputation of being haunted. The neighborhood reported hearing strange, inexplicable noises around the farm, while the manor's livestock were said to behave strangely. These phenomena were particularly noticable on every seventh anniversary of Hannah's death. On a less paranormal level, it was also said that Hannah had demanded that every 21 years, her mummy was to be brought back to Birchen Bower and put on exhibition there for a week. It is not clear if this tale was anything more than gossip, but one can always hope it was based on fact.

In the late 18th century, Birchen Bower was turned into tenements for village weavers. These tenants reported that Hannah's ghost was still very much in residence. They often heard "Madame" striding imperiously through the corridors, while certain favored occupants actually saw her. One family in particular saw so much of Hannah that she practically became an accepted member of the household. When her figure--always clad in black silk--would make an appearance, they would merely shrug and announce, "The old lady comes again!"

After some time had passed, it was noticed that one tenant of Birchen Bower, known as "Joe at Tamer's," was living in surprisingly comfortable circumstances. Although weavers at that time were mostly living in desperate poverty, this man and his family appeared to have no trouble keeping themselves clad and well-fed. Rumors soon spread that "Joe" had found Hannah's long-hidden stash of valuables. Many years later, "Joe" reportedly confirmed his good fortune. The story goes that one day, he pulled up a floor in what had been Hannah's parlor, with the intention of setting up a loom. While digging a hole for the treadle, he uncovered a tin box full of gold. Unfortunately, accounts differ about whether or not "Joe's" lucky find is historical fact or just more of the folklore that grew around Hannah's strange afterlife.

Charles White died in 1813. He bequeathed Hannah to his own physician, Dr. Oilier. In 1829, Oilier donated the mummy to the museum of the Manchester Natural History Society. Hannah, laid out in a glass case, became one of the museum's most popular attractions. The mummified lady kept company with a variety of stuffed animal exhibits, including an elephant, a giraffe, and the head of "Old Billy," a horse who had lived to the age of 61. (Let us hope that Hannah's spirit never learned that while the elephant was insured for £80, her mummy was given a value of only £10.) A mid-19th century journalist noted that Hannah's body had remained "well preserved," but her face was "shrivelled and black."

The Manchester History Museum

In 1868, the museum was given to Owens College (now the University of Manchester.) Sadly, Hannah's new owners viewed the august remains of this irreproachable spinster with a deep distaste. Even the head of Old Billy earned more respect from them. The college's commissioners tried to unload the mummy on Hannah's remaining descendants, but no one was willing to take her off their hands. The interesting fact emerged that a death certificate had never been issued for Hannah, meaning that as far as British bureaucracy was concerned, "Richard Hannah liveth yet!"

The college felt it was high time for Miss Beswick to just legally die already. One hundred and ten years after Hannah Beswick breathed her last, the Home Secretary finally pronounced her deceased. Her mummy was given a quiet burial in an unmarked grave at Manchester's Harpurhey Cemetery on July 22, 1868.

"Bath Chronicle," August 20, 1868

Although a contemporary newspaper published the pious prediction that with this long-deferred funeral, Hannah's "after-death wanderings have at last ceased," this may have been underestimating Madame's restlessness. For many years afterwards, stories circulated that Hannah was now haunting The Priory, while the neighbors of Birchen Bower continued to report seeing her black-silk-clad spirit--sometimes headless!--wandering the grounds she had loved so well in life. The barn of Birchen seemed to be particularly haunted. On the twenty-first anniversary of her death, a cow was found in the barn's hay-loft. No one could explain how the poor animal could have gotten up there. On particularly dark nights, a fiery red glare was reportedly seen from inside the barn, and eerie, inexplicable noises could be heard within.

Birchen Bower is long gone, and the area where it once stood is now a busy urban scene. If an elderly lady in black silk still wanders her old property, it is likely that passers-by are too preoccupied with very modern concerns to even give her a glance.


  1. It astonishes me that people think they may still survive burial even though they've been embalmed. I've heard people today express such a fear. I figure having one's blood pumped out of one's body and replaced with poisonous fluid should really finish one off.

  2. I suppose that if Hanna didn't recover during that 110 years she probably still hasn't.


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