Hannah Beswick had a morbid fear of being buried alive, and this dread was not entirely irrational. Her young brother John almost had his coffin lid closed over him when a mourner attending John’s supposed death noticed the eyelids of the ‘dead body’ flickering. On examination, the family physician, Charles White, confirmed that John was still alive. John regained consciousness a few days later, and lived for many more years.
Such incidents were not uncommon during the period in which Hannah Beswick lived—late 17th to mid-18th century. In fact, cases of premature burial has been documented well into the late 19th century. These are gruesome tales—urban legend or otherwise—about victims falling into the state of sopor or coma, and then waking up, days, months or even years later, to find themselves entombed.
“The Premature Burial” (1854), a painting by Belgium artist Antoine Wiertz that depicts a cholera victim awakening after being placed in a coffin.
The Scottish philosopher John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) was reported to have been buried alive after one of his occasional fits of coma was mistaken to be the loss of life. After his tomb was reopened, years later, his body was found outside his coffin. His hands were torn and bloody from the attempted escape. On February 21, 1885, The New York Times gave a disturbing account of a man identified as “Jenkins”, whose body was found turned over onto its front inside the coffin, with much of his hair pulled out. There were also scratch marks visible on all sides of the coffin's interior. Another story reported in The Times on January 18, 1886, tells about a Canadian girl named "Collins", whose body was described as being found with the knees tucked up under the body, and her burial shroud "torn into shreds".
After the incident with her brother, Hannah was left with a pathological fear of the same thing befalling her. She asked her doctor, Charles White, to ensure that there was no risk of premature burial when her time came. She demanded her body be kept above ground and regularly examined for signs of life until it was certain she was dead. It was a straightforward request, but White chose to ignore it for his own benefit.
Less than a year before she died (February 1758), Hannah wrote her will where she left £100 (equivalent to £14,000 as of 2021) to Dr. White and £400 (equivalent to £57,000 as of 2021) as funeral expenses. It has been suggested that White was an executor of Beswick's will and that he received the £400 himself, from which he was permitted to keep any surplus after the funeral expenses had been paid. White figured out that if he could somehow make sure that no funeral took place, he could pocket the entirety of the amount for himself.
There is no mention in Beswick's will of her desire to be embalmed, but that’s how she ended up with. Aside from the financial motives, White couldn’t resist the temptation to add a mummy to his collection of curiosities, which included, aside from many other things, the skeleton of Thomas Higgins, a highwayman and sheep-stealer who was hanged for burglary.
White probably embalmed Beswick using techniques he had learned from anatomist William Hunter, who had developed an early system of arterial embalming. The process involved injecting a mixture of turpentine and vermilion into the corpse’s veins and arteries, after which the organs were removed from the chest and the abdomen thoroughly washed with water. As much blood as possible is then squeezed out of the corpse, and the whole body washed with alcohol. The body cavities were then filled with a mixture of camphor, nitre and resin. The body was then sewn up and all openings filled with camphor. Finally, the body was rubbed with “fragrant oils” and the box that contained it was filled with plaster of Paris to dry it out.
Beswick's mummified body was initially kept at Ancoats Hall, the home of another Beswick family member, before Dr. White moved it to his home in Sale, Manchester, where it was stored in an old clock case. After White’s death, Beswick's body was bequeathed to another doctor, 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”. Flanked by a Peruvian and an Egyptian mummy, Beswick's mummified body drew the attention of interested visitors.
There are no pictures of Hannah Beswick, and few accounts of her mummy survive except this short description by Philip Wentworth, a local historian:
The body was well preserved but the face was shrivelled 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.
After the museum exhibits became part of the Manchester University’s museum in 1867, the new owners decided that it was dishonourable for a woman who had lived a Christian life to be denied a decent burial and be turned into a spectacle, when all she wanted was to avoid being buried alive. The Bishop of Manchester and the Home Secretary resolved that Hannah was “irrevocably and unmistakably dead”, and hence could be safely buried, in accordance with her wishes. Her body was finally interred in an unmarked grave in Harpurhey Cemetery, more than 110 years after her death.