The John Horwood book

Posted on by Fay Curtis.

illustration of a man in the John Horwood bookOne of the most curious items in the Bristol Archives collection is one of the UK’s few surviving examples of a book bound in human skin.

In 1821 John Horwood, an 18 year old from Hanham, near Bristol, was the first person publicly executed at Bristol’s New Gaol. He had been convicted of the murder of Eliza Balsum, an older girl with whom he had been infatuated and threatened to kill. Eliza died following a head injury after Horwood threw a stone at her whilst she was out walking.

After his execution, Horwood’s corpse was dissected by surgeon Richard Smith during a public lecture at Bristol Royal Infirmary. Smith had part of Horwood’s skin tanned to bind a collection of papers about the murder, trial and execution and the subsequent dissection of Horwood’s body. The dark brown front cover of the book was embossed with skulls and crossbones, with the words ‘Cutis Vera Johannis Horwood’ (‘the actual skin of John Horwood’) added in gilt letters.

The volume has been held for many years at Bristol Archives, although over time, it has become too fragile to be handled. You can see the book on display at M Shed and view a digitised version in the searchroom at Bristol Archives.

If you’d like to find out more, the reference number for the John Horwood book is 35893/36/v_i.

4 comments on “The John Horwood book

  1. Karen Shillam

    i am a distant relative of John Horwoood , i was one of the family members who attended his funeral in Hanham, at some point this year i would like to return to Hanham to place flowers on his grave and also pay a visit to the museum to “view” the book made from his skin, i understand that it is now too fragile to leave on public display, but an appointment can be made to privately see the book ? could you please let me know if this is possible, and if so i will let you know what date we will be attending.

    Many Thanks

    Karen Shillam

    Reply

    1. Allie Dillon, Senior Archivist

      Hi Karen, apologies for our late reply, but the book is on public display in the Place gallery at M Shed, so you can see it there any time during their opening hours: http://www.bristolmuseums.org.uk/m-shed/opening-times

      The contents of the book have been digitised and can be seen in the searchroom at Bristol Archives. To find out about visiting our searchroom, please see http://www.bristolmuseums.org.uk/bristol-archives/your-visit

      Reply

  2. alison butler

    Is it possible to view the books contents online ? Or is the only way to view it – travel to Bristol??? I seem to remember is was available online a while ago.

    Or alternatively, are photo copies available to buy of contents???

    Reply

    1. Allie Dillon, Senior Archivist

      Hi Alison – the John Horwood book isn’t currently available online due to technical issues. You can view the digitised version in the searchroom at Bristol Archives but if you’d prefer to request a digital copy, please email us so that we can reply directly with details of how much this would cost:
      http://www.bristolmuseums.org.uk/bristol-archives/contact-bristol-archives

      Reply

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