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John Horwood Hanged (April 13, 1821)

The Life of John HorwoodToday in Odd History, John Horwood was hanged at the "New" Bristol Gaol. It was Friday the 13th, just three days after Horwood's 18th birthday, and his execution was the prison's first. He hanged for the murder of Eliza Balsum, an older girl who had spurned Horwood's advances; she died of a fractured skull when Horwood threw a rock at her while she crossed a stream near Hanham Mill. In jail, Horwood said, "Lord, thou knowest that I did not mean then to take away her life but merely to punish her: though I confess that I made up my mind, some time or other, to murder her." His body was given to the Bristol Royal Infirmary, where surgeon Richard Smith dissected him. An account of the dissection is bound, along with the transcript of the trial, in a book covered with Horwood's skin.

Before the passage of the The Book of John Horwood1832 Anatomy Act, it was common practice, in England and elsewhere, to allow anatomists to dissect the bodies of executed felons. Indeed, the dissection itself became a part of the punishment, nearly as fearsome as death by slow strangulation. (The "long-drop" method of hanging, which usually guaranteed a broken neck and rapid demise, had not been developed when Horwood hanged.) Anatomists were thus ensured a constant source of cadavers (though many still resorted to grave robbing, since not enough murderers were hanged to fulfill the demand for corpses), and the community was able to savor both the entertainment of open-air executions and the grisly spectacle of public dissections. It was less common for the murderer's skin to be used as bookbinding material, but it was not unheard of.

John Horwood's book, which bears the inscription Cutis Vera Johannis Horwood ("The Skin of John Horwood") in gilded letters on the cover, was part of the Bristol Royal Infirmary's collection for many years. It now resides at the Bristol Records Office. It is too fragile for public use, but the contents are available on microfiche.

 



 

Images:
Both the drawing of Bristol Gaol (from the book bound in Horwood's hide) and the photo of the book itself are from Skin Deep, at Bristol History Then and Now.

Sources:
On This Day, at Camelot International
Skin Deep, at Bristol History Then and Now
Introductory Anatomy

Dr. Lyle Larsen, at Santa Monica College, has an interesting page on books with unusual bindings:
Odd Volumes

Recommended Reading:
Death, Dissection and the DestituteDeath, Dissection and the Destitute, by Ruth Richardson.
Explores the sociological and economic background of the 1832 Anatomy Act.

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