Sunday, 22 October 2017

Sentenced To Be Dissected

                                          John Horwood

Not strictly Victorian, but certainly 19th century, we have the strange tale of the Bristol lad sentenced to be used by medical science for dissection at the age of eighteen.

In January 1821 seventeen year old Eliza Balsum was crossing the stream on the outskirts of Bristol with her new beau William Waddy. They were laughing and joking as they used the stepping stones to keep clear of the water. On the other side of the stream appeared John Horwood. He had previously been Eliza’s boyfriend but she had broken off the relationship towards the end of 1820 and he had threatened violence against her. Seething with jealousy, John cast a stone, hurling it at Eliza. It struck her on the temple, causing her to fall. The poor girl was supported back to her mother’s home nearby, still conscious but in obvious discomfort.

                                                       Dr Smith in his masonic robes.

After a couple of days being treated at home she attended the Bristol Royal Infirmary as an outpatient, where she was treated by Dr. Richard Smith, senior surgeon. He observed the depressed fracture at her right temple and admitted as a patient to his hospital. Dr. Smith was present when a statement was made by Eliza, in which she named John Horwood as her attacker. Days passed, and Eliza’s condition got worse rather than better, until the good doctor decided that he needed to operate to relieve the pressure on the brain. Trepanning (i.e. drilling a hole in the skull) was a barbarous method of treatment in the days before anaesthesia, and with no understanding of antisepsis. Within a couple of days the girl was dead – and John Horwood was immediately charged with murder. The date was 17th February 1821. His trial took place at the Star Inn in Bedminster (Bristol) and lasted one day. Ironically the trial saw the two people who caused Eliza’s death to be present in the same room, Horwood and Smith, but in very different contexts: one as them as the accused; and the other as main witness. There was therefore no examination as to the actual cause of death, or whether the trepanning operation was bungled. Instead, Dr. Smith recounted the statement made by Eliza, outlined his valiant efforts to save the poor wretch, and convinced the court that it was all John Horwood’s fault. It was 13th April 1821 and John had turned 18 years of age just three days previously. John Horwood was found guilty and sentenced to hang at the New Gaol prison. His remains were then to be given over to the surgeons at the Bristol Royal Infirmary for their dissection classes.

Little remains today of the prison apart from its gatehouse which still overlooks the New Cut. Crowds gathered here for executions risked falling into its waters.

Finding himself within the oppressive confines of the condemned cell, John Horwood abandoned his previous indifference to his victim and reverted to his chapel upbringing.

"Lord, thou knowest that I did not mean then to take away her life but merely to punish her: though I confess that I made up my mind, some time or other, to murder her," he confessed. It is not known of the confession was exerted under duress or freely given.

On Friday 13th April, 1821 the prison hosted its first public execution. Horwood took several minutes to die by slow strangulation. The event was hugely popular with the populace of Bristol, with thousands of people turning out to watch. The prison was adjacent to the unfenced stretch of river known as the New Cut, and the authorities were seriously worried that the crush would lead to spectators falling in and drowning. 

Hanging in those days was not a quick process. The 'long drop' method had yet to be developed. This used the victim's own weight, combined with a fall, to break their necks, creating merciful unconsciousness. Instead the condemned, bound hand and foot, were dropped through a trap door on a short rope to strangle to death over a period of minutes - usually accompanied with much writhing around. 

                                  A contempoary  print showing John Horwoods execution. This comes from the book bound in Horwood's own skin.

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 town 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. In an even more gruesome twist, Smith had the boy's skin preserved and tanned.

The account of the trial was bound in John Horwoods own skin. Its black cover was embossed with a skull and crossbones at each corner and on its front bore the gilded legend Cutis Vera Johannis Horwood which translated means, "The skin of John Horwood." 

A bill for ten pounds from the binder sits inside its covers.

For years the macabre book lay within the vaults of the BRI but it now resides in the Bristol Record Office, ironically located at the opposite end of the Cumberland Road where John Horwood's life was ended for him.

The book has now become too fragile over the passing years to allow the public access to it. The Record Office, however, has made its contents available on microfiche within their searchroom.

                                     An illustration from the book bound in Horwood's skin

In a final twist the records show that some considered Dr. Smith himself to be the cause of poor Eliza's death.  

And what of the mortal remains of John Horwood? After languishing for 190 years in a cupboard, it was finally time for him to be laid to rest. So it was that in April 2011, on the exact anniversary and time of his death, John’s body was brought back to Hanham and given a proper funeral. It marked the end of a personal crusade 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. A dignified end at last to a somewhat undignified episode which shows us not just the barbarity of English justice but also the inadequacy of medical treatment some 200 years ago.

John Horwood was finally buried on April 13th, 2011. This is a picture of the cortege made up of his his descendants and history buffs.

                                                            The funeral of John Horwood.

BBC Bristol

Getty Images

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