John Horwood’s skeleton Bristol University
John Horwood’s skeleton Bristol University
John Horwood was convicted of murder in Bristol, England, in 1821.
He was the first person to be hanged at Bristol New Gaol. His skeleton was retained, and most recently was kept hanging in a cupboard at Bristol University with the noose still around its neck.
He was buried alongside his father on 13 April 2011 at 1.30pm, exactly 190 years to the hour after he was hanged.
Horwood was an 18 year old miner from Hanham and the tenth child of Thomas Horwood.
Horwood’s relationship with girlfriend Eliza Balsom ended in 1820. In 1821 he saw her with a new boyfriend, and threw a stone which struck her on the temple. The stone only caused minor injury, but she was treated at the Bristol Royal Infirmary for a depressed fracture and Dr Richard Smith decided to operate, causing a fatal abscess, and she died, four days later, on 17 February 1821.
Dr. Smith gave Horwood’s name to the police. The trial took place at the Star Inn in Bedminster on 11 April 1821, and Smith testified against him. He was hanged two days later and his body was handed back to Dr. Smith for dissection. Smith also had the body skinned, tanned and used to bind the papers in the case.
This document is now kept in the Bristol Records Office. It is embossed with a gallows motif. The practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy is known to have been practiced since the 17th century, and it was common to use the murderer’s skin in this manner during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Smith kept the skeleton at his home until his death, when it was passed to the Bristol Royal Infirmary and later to Bristol University.
The funeral was arranged by Mary Halliwell, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Horwood’s brother.
The coffin was draped in velvet and carried on a wheeled bier in the manner of funerals of the period of his death.
Horwood went on trial for murder, was convicted and sentenced to death at the New Gaol in Cumberland Road. In the days leading up to his death he became grateful for the comfort of religion and 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 had made up my mind, some time or other, to murder her.’
Image Above: The new Gaol in Cumberland road Bristol John Horwood was hanged above the gatehouse door – this is the only part of the old gaol that remains today.
Horwood went to the gallows on Friday, 13th April 1821, three days after his eighteenth birthday. He left behind a verse which was printed and sold on the day of execution. It reads:
‘JOHN HORWOOD IS MY WRETCHED NAME
AND HANHAM GAVE ME BIRTH
MY PREVIOUS TIME HAS BEEN EMPLOYED
IN RIOTING AND MIRTH.
ELIZA, OH ELIZA DEAR!
THY SPIRIT, OH, IS FLED!
AND THY POOR MANGLED BODY LIES
NOW NUMBER’D WITH THE DEAD.
CURS’D IS THE HAND THAT GAVE THE BLOW
AND CURS’D THE FATAL STONE
WHICH MADE THY PRECIOUS LIFE BLOOD FLOW
FOR IT HAS ME UNDONE ‘.
John Horwood was publicly hanged on top of the prison gatehouse in front of an assembled crowd.
Such was the appeal of these open air executions that some parts of the crowd risked being pushed into the unfenced New Cut river by their sheer weight of numbers.
After his condemnation, two Clergymen were constantly with the prisoner, and a great alteration was perceptible in his behaviour. He joined with these gentlemen in prayer, and appeared truly penitent.
On Thursday he said, “I hope to be in Heaven by this time tomorrow, with the dear girl.”
When asked how he could expect to go there, he said “Jesus died for a sinner – I am a great one; I rest entirely on him.” About twelve, the culprit was released from his shackles, and ascended the awful platform a quarter before one. The signal for the falling of the platform was to be given by the prisoner, by the dropping of a handkerchief, but he kept the spectators in an awful state of suspence for nearly twenty five minutes before he appeared to have courage to let it fall. His struggles were speedily at and end. After hanging the usual time, the body was taken down, and delivered over the the Surgeons for dissection, in pursuance of his sentence. Notwithstanding the unfavourable state of the weather, it is supposed that not less than 20, 000 persons were assembled.
After the execution, a group of friends and family lay in wait hoping to prevent the conclusion of the boy’s sentence – his dissection.
They planned to ambush the cart carrying his body and spirit it away by boat back to his home village of Hanham.
However, the gaol authorities thwarted this plan by delivering the corpse under cover of night to the Bristol Royal Infirmary, where the surgeon Richard Smith carried out the dissection as one of his classes.
Horwood’s body after the execution was given to a surgeon at Bristol Royal Infirmary to be dissected for the benefit of medical students. The anatomist kept a detailed record of his findings and, after completing his work, had them bound together with a transcript of Horwood’s trial.
His flayed skin was taken to a tanner, who turned it into leather for the equivalent of £1.50. The surgeon, Richard Smith, spent a further £10 having the book bound and the front cover embossed with the skull and crossbones at each corner. The words Cutis Vera Johannis Horwood (‘The Skin of John Horwood’) were added in gilt letters.
A book bound with a murderer’s skin is on public display for the first time.
For decades the book languished in the infirmary’s library before being transferred to the Bristol Record Office, where it has gone on display as an exhibit in the National Archive Awareness Month.
The book, bound in Horwood’s skin, which resembles tanned pigskin, is beautifully hand-tooled around the edges and bears a picture of a gallows on the front cover.
Horwood enjoyed the distinction of being the first prisoner to be hanged at the new Cumberland Road gaol (the original was burnt down during the Bristol Riots). The moment he was pronounced dead, Horwood’s body was commandeered by Richard Smith, the surgeon who accused him of the crime. Smith dissected the body during a public medical lecture.
Smith had Horwood’s body skinned and tanned. After it was given a further chemical treatment in Bedminster, what was left of Horwood was dispatched to a bookbinders in Essex who used it to bind a book, written by Smith, about the Horwood case. The book remains in the city archive and the gruesome relic is made available to the public by appointment.
Gruesome Bristol: New Gaol prison – See link below
Bristol Royal Infirmary, surgeon Richard Smith
This macabre book was originally kept at the Bristol Royal Infirmary but for many years it has been in the custody of Bristol Record Office. It is one of the few surviving examples in the UK of a book bound in human skin. Over the years the book has become too fragile to allow public access, but now it has been completely digitised and for the first time can be viewed here online.
2010 – Family of man hanged in Bristol in 1821 seek burial
By Caroline Le Marechal BBC News, Bristol
Murderer’s skeleton to be buried… 190 years after hanging
Hanged Man’s Family Seek Burial After Nearly 200 Years
I want him to have burial he was denied
Prior to 1832 in England, doctors and medical students were allowed to dissect only the bodies of executed murderers. The populace loved to read accounts of the lives and deaths of these villains, and it was not unheard of for copies to be bound in the miscreant’s own hide.
John Horwood laid to rest – 190 years after his death