Hannah Beswick (1688 – February 1758), of Birchin Bower, Hollinwood, Oldham, Lancashire, was a wealthy woman who had a pathological fear of premature burial. Following her death in 1758 her body was embalmed and kept above ground, to be periodically checked for signs of life.
The method of embalming was not recorded. The body was then put in an old clock case and stored in the house of Beswick's family physician, Dr Charles White. Beswick's apparently eccentric will made her a local celebrity, and visitors were allowed to view her at White's house.
Beswick's mummified body was eventually bequeathed to the Museum of the Manchester Natural History Society, where she was put on display and acquired the sobriquet of the Manchester Mummy, or the Mummy of Birchin Bower. The museum's collection was later transferred to Manchester University.
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 that 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. White had developed a particular interest in anatomy while studying medicine in London and was building up a collection of "curiosities", which by the time of his death included the skeleton of Thomas Higgins, a highwayman and sheep-stealer hanged for burglary, as well as Hannah Beswick's mummy.
The method of embalming used by White is unrecorded, but in 1748 he had studied under the anatomist William Hunter, who had developed an early system of arterial embalming, therefore it is likely that White used the same method. The veins and arteries would have been injected with a mixture of turpentine and vermilion, after which the organs would have been removed from the chest and abdomen and placed in water, to clean them and to reduce their bulk. As much blood as possible would then have been squeezed out of the corpse, and the whole body washed with alcohol. The next stage would have been to replace the organs and to repeat the injection of turpentine and vermilion. The body cavities would then have been filled with a mixture of camphor, nitre and resin, before the body was sewn up and all openings filled with camphor. After a final washing, the body would have been packed into a box containing plaster of Paris, to absorb any moisture, and then probably coated with tar, to preserve it.
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, Cheshire, where it was stored in an old clock case. 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. She was described by a visitor in 1844 as "one of the most remarkable objects in the museum". There are no pictures of Hannah Beswick. One of the few contemporary accounts of her is provided by Philip Wentworth, a local historian: The body was well preserved but the face was shriveled and black. The legs and trunks were tightly bound in a strong cloth such as is used for bed ticks [a stiff kind of mattress cover material] and the body, which was that of a little old woman, was in a glass coffin-shaped case.
Shortly after the museum's transfer to Manchester University in 1867 it was decided that as Beswick was "irrevocably and unmistakably dead", the time had come for her to be buried. But since 1837 UK law had required that a medical examiner issue a certificate of death before a burial could take place; as Beswick had died in 1758 an appeal had to be made to the Secretary of State, who issued an order for her burial. 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.
Her home, Birchin Bower was eventually demolished to make way for a Ferranti factory.