15 April 2021

Reading the ‘book of skin’: The life and death of John Horwood

2021 marks the bicentenary of the execution of John Horwood of Hanham. At only 18 years old, he was the first person to be executed from the gallows on the gates of Bristol New Gaol.

Horwood had been convicted of the murder of Eliza Balsum. She was a young woman from the same community, and his former sweetheart.

Dr Richard Smith, the surgeon who attended Eliza at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, became witness for the prosecution. He dissected Horwood’s body post-mortem to amplify the severity of his punishment. Not only did Smith discharge his duty in front of a public audience, he had Horwood’s skin dressed and tanned to bind his account of the case. Embossed with the actual skin of John Horwood and skull and cross-bone motifs, the book is now on display at M Shed.

In this talk, Dr Rose Wallis will explore the contents of the ‘book of skin’. The collection of material compiled by Smith is rich and varied. It sheds light on the operation of the law in the 1820s, and contemporary attempts to understand criminality.

Within the accounts of the legal proceedings and Smith’s physiognomic investigations, we can find intimate details about life for young people in the early nineteenth-century. It provides us an insight into Horwood the person, beyond the criminal corpse, or indeed the ‘book of skin’.

Speaker: Dr Rose Wallis is a Senior Lecturer in British Social History at the University of the West of England, and Associate Director of the Regional History Centre.

This is a UWE Regional History Centre talk in partnership with M Shed seminar series.

How to take part

This free, online talk will be held over Zoom. Please book your place below. Details of how to join the session will be in your registration email. Please check your spam folder if the email does not arrive. Bookings close at 2pm on Thursday 18 March.

Although this talk is free, we would be grateful if you could consider making a donation.

Please visit the Zoom website for guidance on joining meetings. Please allow extra time before the talk begins to make sure everything is working correctly. It’s up to you whether you turn on your video but all guests will be muted once the talk begins. You are welcome to ask questions in the chat box throughout the talk.