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.

9 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


    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:

      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


  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???


    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:


  3. Adam Morgan

    Hi Bristol Museum Staff,

    I am making a non profit docudrama short film on the John Horwood story later this year. Is there any possibility of having a staff member go on camera to talk about the history of the book? Also, would we be able to get a shot of the book on display for the film? We would thank the said staff member in the end credits, and of course the Museum. I think it’s an important part of Bristol’s history, and therefore could be very popular indeed.

    Kind regards

    Adam J Morgan


    1. Lauren MacCarthy

      Hi Adam, if you contact [email protected] in the first instance, they will be able to help.


    2. Anna

      My daughter would be incredibly interested in this (she’s 11 and is absolutely fascinated with the history behind it)


  4. Ivana Renteria

    Would you happen to have any information about who the binder was? I know that Dr. Smith commissioned the work to be done, but I am wondering who actually did the work. Thank you.


  5. Doreen Patricia Lindegaard

    I notice that an 11 year old is mentioned here. I was a little older, aged 14. In 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain, Mr Francis White, the Kingswood bookseller & newsagent put on an a small exhibition in his shop window, among the artefacts was a notice with the legend “Book bound in the skin of a Kingswood Murderer”. My nose was pressed against the window. I was utterly gripped. From school history I never would have guessed that “ordinary people” had a history that you could trace. It set in motion a lifelong passion and now aged 86, I’m still at it. http://www.bristolhistory, I was so pleased John Horwood received a proper funeral a few years ago in Hanham. RIP.


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