Mystery of The Manchester Mummy

Hannah Beswick (1688 – 1758), a member of a wealthy family from Failsworth in Lancashire, was one of the people who had a pathological fear of premature burial. But the truth is, Hannah’s phobia was not irrational at all. Around the time of her brothers ‘death’ and for decades after, horrific stories, newspaper articles and lurid books were published documenting the stories of people who had bloodied their fingers and torn their clothes in an attempt to escape their nightmarish tombs. Following her death in 1758 her body was embalmed and kept above ground, to be periodically checked for signs of life.

In 1688, Hannah Beswick was born in Cheetwood Old Hall to wealthy parents John and Patience. When her father died in 1706, she inherited his substantial wealth and moved to a stunning manor house in Hollinwood near Oldham called Birchen Bower.

Some years before her own death, the funeral of her brother, John had been about to take place in York when a member of the mourning party noticed his eyelids flickering, just before the lid was fastened down. The family doctor, Charles White (the founder of the Manchester Royal Infirmary), declared that John was still alive. John made a full recovery and lived on for years afterwards.

Charles White
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Unsurprisingly, this left Hannah with a morbid fear of the same thing happening to her. She asked her doctor (the same Charles White) to ensure that there was no risk of premature burial when her time came, and asked White to keep her body above ground.

On the 25th July 1757, just a year before her death, Hannah wrote her will, stating that she wished to remain above ground and regularly examined until doctors were certain she was dead.

There is no mention in Beswick's 1757 will of her desire to be embalmed. It has been suggested that White had been asked to keep Beswick above ground only until it became obvious that she was actually dead, but he had an obsession with anatomy and was fascinated by the ancient Egyptian ritual of mummification. It seems he was unable to resist the temptation to add a mummy to his collection of "wet and dry" exhibits, and so made the decision to embalm her.

Though the exact method of mummification is unknown, White was once a student of anatomist, Dr William Hunter, who’d created a technique, called ‘arterial embalming’ which involved filling veins and arteries with various liquids, removing the organs, squeezing blood and fluids from the corpse and washing the body with alcohol.

Following this, the organs would be placed back into the cavities and was filled with plaster of Paris. Once sewn up, the openings were stuffed with camphor and finally the corpse was coated with tar; though we don’t know it for sure, many historians believe this is how the ‘Mummy of Manchester’ was created.

Beswick's mummified body was initially kept at Ancoats Hall, the home of another Beswick family member, but it was soon moved to a room in Dr White's home in Sale, Manchester, where it was stored in an old clock case. Beswick's apparently eccentric will made her a celebrity; the author Thomas de Quincey was one of those who went to view her at White's house. Following White's death in 1813, Beswick's body was bequeathed to a Dr Ollier, on whose death in 1828 it was donated to the Museum of the Manchester Natural History Society, where she became known as the Manchester Mummy, or the Mummy of Birchin Bower. She was displayed in the museum's entrance hall, next to a Peruvian and an Egyptian mummy, and her relatives were allowed free access to visit her as they wished.

Unfortunately, no sketches or photographs of Hannah have survived but local historian, Phillip Wentworth described that her face was ‘shrivelled and black, [her] legs and trunk were tightly bound in a strong cloth… and the body, which was that of a little old woman, was in a glass coffin-shaped case.’

A newspaper clipping about the Manchester Mummy
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With the permission of the Bishop of Manchester, Hannah Beswick was interred in an unmarked grave in Harpurhey Cemetery on 22 July 1868, more than 110 years after her death.

In 1745 when the Scottish rebel Bonnie Prince Charlie arrived in Manchester with his army, Hannah worried about her money and buried some of her fortune in a location she eventually took to the grave.

When she died, Birchin Bower was converted into workers’ residences where many of the inhabitants reported seeing a ghostly figure in a black gown and white cap roaming the halls. After gliding across the house's parlour, the apparition would vanish at one particular flagstone. It is claimed that while digging to fit a new loom, a weaver living there discovered Beswick's hoard of gold, hidden underneath that same flagstone. Oliphant's, a Manchester gold dealer, paid the weaver £3 10s for each gold piece, the equivalent of almost £500 in 2021.

When Beswick's family home, Cheetwood Old Hall was demolished in 1890 to make way for a brickyard, contractors discovered a double coffin buried underneath the drawing room, the mystery of the burial was never solved but at the time it was thought to be connected to the Beswick family and Dr White who had resided at the hall after Hannah Beswick removed to Oldham.


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