Last month I spent some time in Special Collections at the University of Glasgow Library, looking at the catalogues of the anatomical preparations of London anatomist and man-midwife William Hunter (1718-1783). Hunter, a Scot, left his collections to the University of Glasgow, where they still reside. Among the anatomical preparations listed in 1784 was “A Skeleton of a Dwarf called Leathercoat Jack, where the cartilages are most of them ossified.” It was not unusual that Hunter had the skeleton of a dwarf in his collection. Other entries in the catalogue included “4 natural skeletons of children” and “a skeleton with incurvated spine.” What struck me was that this skeleton, alone of all the ones in his collection, had a name.
The dwarf known on the streets of London in the 1720s and 30s as “Leathercoat Jack” was an Irishman named Owen Farrel, who wore a battered leather jacket. What little is known of his life is told on the bottom of a very popular engraving made in 1742:
He was born in the County of Caven; & in ye year 1716 was footman to a Colonel at Dublin: afterwards was carried about for a Show, being but 3ft—9in high, yet so surprizingly strong that he could carry 4 men, 2 sitting astride on each Arm, and perform several other feats of Strength; at last he came to London, where he begged about the streets: some time before his death he sold his Body to Mr Omrod a Surgeon for a weekly allowance, who after his Death made a Skeleton of his Bones, which is now in the Museum of his Grace the Duke of Richmond.
It was not unusual for desperate men to sell their bodies to surgeons. But these men usually were about to be executed, and the money was for their families. Anatomists especially prized the bodies of giants and dwarfs, who could reveal the secrets of conception and development. The story of the Irish giant Charles Byrne, who took extreme measures to prevent his dead body from being dissected by William Hunter’s brother John, was well told in Hilary Mantel’s 1998 novel The Giant, O’Brien. John Hunter got Byrne’s body anyway, and his bones are still at the London College of Physicians (although they may not be there much longer). But Farrel had no such fears of mutilation after his death.
Owen Farrel’s portrait shows a ragged man with his toes protruding from his shoes. We don’t know when he died. At the bottom of the engraving is printed : “Gravelot del / Hulett Sculp” and at the bottom of the text, “Publish’d May ye 27th 1742 According to Act of Parliament.” Hubert-François Bourguignon, known as Gravelot (1699-1773), painted the portrait from which James Hulett (d. 1771) made this engraving. Gravelot came to London in 1732, so he painted the portrait sometime between that date and 1742, when the engraving was produced. Hulett dedicated the engraving to Cromwell Mortimer (1693-1752), secretary of the Royal Society.
I have not found a surgeon named “Omrod” – a very odd name – but I have found three named “Ormorod” who lived at about the right time and one of them may have been Owen Farrel’s benefactor and ultimate beneficiary. Omrod or Ormorod sold Farrel’s skeleton to Charles Lennox, second Duke of Richmond (1701-1750), who was a fellow of the Royal Society and a well-known collector of natural history and antiquities. Richmond’s collections were sold at auction in 1751, and the catalogue lists “The curious Skeleton of a famous Dwarf, called Leathercoat Jack, in a hexagon mahogany case, glazed,” accompanied by “A painting in oil of the same Dwarf, by Highmore.” The painter was probably society portrait painter Joseph Highmore (1692-1780). So Farrel had his portrait painted at least twice, an odd kind of fame for a penniless beggar.
William Hunter bought the skeleton and possibly the portrait as well. In the description of the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow written by Captain John Laskey in 1813, the painting of a “DWARF” occupies a prominent place in the museum’s anteroom along with a stuffed armadillo and several scarab beetles. The skeleton of the dwarf, Laskey wrote, was elsewhere in the museum. By 1900, however, when John Teacher published his catalogue of Hunter’s anatomical collections, only a foot and a leg remained of Owen Farrel’s skeleton, along with his portrait.
But Farrel was not the only dwarf, or even the only Irish dwarf, to be exhibited in London. In 1791, an Irish dwarf named Peter Davies, possibly modeling himself on Leathercoat Jack, displayed similar superhuman strength.
But he left no trace of his ultimate fate.