Friday, November 12, 2010

Skin and bones

Genealogy led Mary Halliwell, of Leigh, Greater Manchester, U.K. (1st image, right), to John Horwood (1803-1821), the son of her great-great-great grandfather's brother. This meant that not only did she have an accused murderer lurking in her family tree, but that the skeleton was not in her closet, but rather one in a laboratory at the University of Bristol. She describes her reaction when she and a cousin went to see it: "I said, 'What's he doing in a cupboard under the stairwell and covered in cobwebs. The rope is still around his neck. Why is that there?' That is sick that is."

Horwood had lived in the village of Hanham near Bristol, and took out his frustrations on local girl Eliza Balsom when their relationship soured. He hurled a stone at her as she walked along a brook with her new beau. That stone hit her eye, the hole drilled to relieve the pressure became infected, and she later died. Horwood was sentenced to be hanged and publicly dissected. The 1st half of the sentence was carried out atop Bristol's newly built gaol. The 2nd half was performed by surgeon Richard Smith before a crowd of 80 at the Bristol Royal Infirmary. Dr. Smith did more than just carry out the letter of the law. He harvested, articulated, and curated the skeleton, which the university has agreed to cremate and release to the Halliwell family for interment. He also skinned the body, and had the skin tanned and used to bind a book of all the papers relating to John Horwood's case - including letters from the young man's parents appealing for the release of his body so they could bury it. The Halliwells want to honor the Horwoods' wishes by burying the anthropodermic book (2nd image), which resides at the Bristol Record Office, along with the bones. The arrangements are being handled by E.C. Alderwick of Hanham, and funeral director Austin Williams says, "It's a massive part of local history and often talked about. We felt it was our right as part of the community to become involved. We feel a funeral should be a true reflection of how a funeral would have been in 1821. The big difference is that it would have been a burial and not a cremation. All John's family are buried in the local church." The service for the burial of his relics* is being planned for April 13, 2011 - exactly 190 years to the minute after the execution of his body.

*For the record, I harbor deeply felt ambivalence about the "decent burial" of historic mummies, skeletons, and other relics that have remained above ground in institutions and available to scholars for decades or centuries.


  1. I have to agree with you, Chris. At what point do we stop and say we are or we aren't going to "give a decent burial" to these now historical artifacts? Tough line to draw; that is for sure.

  2. It's a hard call. These are the remains of people who have families, and families who may have deeply felt senses of relationship that go way, way back. Even repatriated mummies are welcomed home. I try to think how I would feel it that was my great grandfather, and I expect I wouldn't like the disrespectful way of displaying it and the sensationalist, aweful book of his skin. On the other hand, the spirit has departed and it's just a body, at least to the rest of us!


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