Murder most horrid

Gail Boyle, curator at the M Shed in Bristol, nominates the John Horwood book as the museum's most curious object. You can hear more from Gail on this week's free podcast

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© Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives

You might not think it’s that odd to find an old book, dating from the 1820s, in a museum. You probably wouldn’t find it that surprising to note that the contents of said book are an account of a murder trial, nor indeed to learn that the man found guilty of the murder was hanged for his crime. That after all was the regular fate for those convicted of murder in the early 19th century.

What makes this rather unusual is the fact that if you were reading the story of this murder in this particular book, you’d be rather closer to the perpetrator of the crime than you might like, given that its well-worn leather cover is in fact made with the murderer’s skin.

John Horwood was hanged on 13 April 1821 outside Bristol’s newly-built gaol (the first execution on the site in fact). But instead of being buried, his corpse was delivered to a local doctor at the Bristol Royal Infirmary for anatomical dissection during a public lecture. The skin was flayed off, tanned and then stretched out to make the cover of the book.

How thoroughly unpleasant, you might think, but this wasn’t a one-off - anthropodermic bibliopegy, as this is technically known, wasn’t an entirely unusual practice. There are several other human-skinned books on display around the country – one, in Devon, for instance, composed of the skin of the 1830s murderer George Cudmore, covers a copy of Milton’s poetry.

It’s not actually as gruesome as you might imagine either. In reality the book looks just like any other Victorian leather-bound tome, and, apparently (I can’t confirm this as its fragility means that it’s kept behind glass now) feels and smells no different either.

The story actually gets stranger however. The local doctor who dissected Horwood’s body, a certain Richard Smith, is rather intimately involved with the case. It’s his collection of papers about the murder, trial and execution that make up the content of the book. Smith had good reason to be so interested in the case because he was also the surgeon who operated on the murder victim, one Eliza Balsum.

The unfortunate Balsum suffered a head injury after Horwood, who was infatuated with her, had thrown a stone at her. She didn’t immediately die from this assault; it was only after Dr Smith operated on her fractured skull that she passed away. You can’t help but wonder whether it was the stone or the scalpel that done for Eliza. Smith also gave evidence in Horwood’s one-day trial, and his evidence no doubt contributed to the death sentence being passed.

The doctor must have been possessed of a naturally morbid edge, befitting a man who spent his days cutting up bodies, because the book has a skull and crossbows embossed at each corner, and a central gibbet motif that’s exactly what you’d end up with after a game of hangman. The Latin title, by the way. ‘Cutis Vera Johannis Horwood’ is functionally prosaic as it translates simply as ‘the skin of John Horwood’.

The black-humoured doctor was one of the band of men of science of the age, who spent their time investigating the workings of the human body by the only means available to them – dissecting corpses. They faced one significant obstacle in this – there weren’t that many people keen to devote their mortal remains to the cause.

In fact, executed murderers were the only legal source of cadavers for anatomists. There weren’t enough criminals like John Horwood to keep Richard Smith and his trade in business (it’s said that in 1826 alone, 592 bodies were dissected by surgeons in London’s anatomy schools). Bodysnatching, by removing the recently deceased from their graves, was thus how the anatomists got their subjects. This sort of thing didn’t go down at all well among the general public, who were keen to think they’d be allowed to rest in peace once they’d passed on.

Bodysnatching was bad enough, but it was less than a decade after Horwood’s demise that Burke and Hare achieved lasting infamy in Edinburgh by actually murdering living people to sell their bodies on for dissection. This caused an outcry, understandably, across the country, and indeed 200 men of science from Bristol signed a petition demanding a change to the law. The government took note, and so in 1832, the Anatomy Act was passed that meant that the bodies of those who died in the workhouses, and were unclaimed by their families, could be given to the anatomists for their work.

This strange skin book therefore links in with one of the main public interest stories, albeit a ghoulish one, of the first decades of the 19th century. There’s a curious coda as well though. It wasn’t just Horwood’s skin that was kept after his death; his bones too were retained, first by the Bristol Royal Infirmary, and then latterly by Bristol University. His skeleton was only finally laid to rest on 13 April 2011, after a campaign by one of his descendants.

 

Where is it?

In Bristol’s new M Shed museum. This museum, on the harbourside and occupying the site of the city’s former Industrial Museum, tells the story of Bristol and its people. Other highlights include a double-decker bus and a 1980s swimming pool changing cubicle, plus great views over Bristol’s docks from the top floor (in fact, look out from the rear of the museum over the carpark and you can see the remains of the gaol where John Horwood was hanged back in 1821).

You can see images of the book and other objects in the museum in our online gallery