Family Historian who came face to face with an actual ‘skeleton in the cupboard’, unjustly hanged 190 years ago

Family Historian who came face to face with an actual ‘skeleton in the cupboard’, unjustly hanged 190 years ago


When Mary Halliwell tracked her Horwood ancestors down to a parish near Bristol, she never expected to find a real skeleton under lock and key in a cupboard.  The skeleton belonged to 18-year-old John Horwood, convicted of murder and hanged in Bristol in 1821.  John was the youngest brother of Mary’s 3 x great grandfather, Thomas Horwood.



Mary, of Leigh, Lancashire, told the Bristol Post,

“None of my existing family had ever heard of John Horwood, or knew that there was a convicted murderer in the family.  Maybe the story was not passed on from generation to generation, or had just been forgotten over the passage of time.  While researching the maternal side of my family I discovered that my great-great-great grandfather had been born in the parish of Bitton.  As I had never heard of the place I decided to search the internet, hoping to find out about its location, geography and history.  I stumbled upon a web page about a book of human skin held in Bristol Record Office and of some papers collected by Dr Richard Smith, who had dissected the body of a John Horwood in 1821.  The same web page claimed his skeleton was in the Bristol University Medical School and still being used for teaching purposes.  I then discovered that the murder had taken place in Hanham, in the parish of Bitton, the birthplace of my ancestors.  I began to wonder if John Horwood was also one.

“I contacted the Bristol and Avon Family History Society to seek advice and the resulting information proved invaluable.  Baptism records proved that Thomas and John were brothers, two of ten children born to Thomas and Phoebe Horwood of Hanham.  After discovering this tragic and shocking family story my curiosity was aroused and I decided to visit the Bristol area.  Accompanied by my cousin, Marie, I left home with appointments to view both the skeleton and the book.  Our first encounter with the past was a visit to the prison on Cumberland Road, the place of John’s execution.  The building had been demolished – only the main gate remains – but we found it very moving and upsetting being at the place where our ancestor’s life had so brutally ended.

John Horwood’s skeleton

“The next day we had an appointment with Angela Wells at the Bristol University Medical School to view John’s skeleton.  We followed her up two flights of stairs before she stopped by the side of the next stairwell.  Here she opened a padlocked cupboard door revealing a wooden case rather like the case of a grandfather clock, with a glass door front.  Suspended inside by a brass hook attached to the top of the skull was the skeleton of John Horwood, still with a rope around his neck.  Before I could say anything Angela explained that the rope was there to show that the skeleton was that of a felon.  I noticed that the skeleton had very large hands – my grandfather also had very large hands.  I placed my hands on the shoulder of the skeleton and closed my eyes, silently saying ‘God Bless You’.

“The following morning we had an appointment at the Bristol Record Office to view the book which had been bound with John’s skin…The first thing I noticed was the awful smell – I can only describe it as rotting leather.  With age it had turned dark brown but I could see a skull and crossbones embossed in each corner and the inscription ‘Cutis Vera Johannis Horwood’, which translates as ‘The skin of John Horwood’.

Mary returned home to Lancashire determined to find out more about John Horwood, and eventually uncovered his story.

John was just 17 years old when his relationship with his sweetheart, Eliza Balsom, ended in 1820.  A few months later, in February 1821, the still infatuated teenager spotted her strolling with a new beau, William Waddy, on the hillside near her West Country cottage.  It was too much for John and, in a fit of anger, he picked up a pebble and hurled it at Eliza.  It hit her on the right temple and she tumbled into a brook.

However, the pebble had only made a small wound, for which she was initially treated at home.  When she went to Bristol Royal Infirmary to get the wound dressed properly, surgeon Richard Smith declared that it had become infected and decided to operate.  In the early 19th century this meant trepanning – drilling a hole in the patient’s head to relieve pressure.  The trepanning caused an abscess and four days later Eliza died.

Dr Smith alerted the police to the stone-thrower’s identity and John was arrested.  Smith also appeared for the prosecution at the one-day trial in Bristol, at which John was found guilty of murder and condemned to death.

John Horwood

John was hanged in front of an assembled crowd above the gatehouse entrance of the New Bristol Gaol on 13 April 1821, three days after his 18th birthday.  Hanging in those days was a slow death.  The ‘long drop’ method of hanging – using the victims’ own weight, combined with the fall, to break their necks and render them immediately unconsciousness – had yet to be developed.  Instead, John Horwood, with hands and feet bound, was dropped through a trap door on a short rope and strangled to death in writhing agony.

His body was requisitioned by the very same Dr Smith for medical research.  John’s family pleaded for his body to be released to them for burial in his home village of Hanham, but Dr Smith refused.  A group of John’s friends and relatives even planned to hijack the cart taking the body from the prison to the hospital.  However, the gaol authorities thwarted this plan by delivering the corpse under cover of night to the Bristol Royal Infirmary, where Dr Smith carried out the dissection in front of 80 people at one of his medical classes.

The findings were then bound with a transcript of the trial in a book. Smith’s macabre twist was to send John’s flayed skin to a tanner, where it was turned into leather and used to bind the book.  Smith kept the skeleton, complete with a noose round it’s neck, in a cabinet at hisBristol home, showing it off to guests, until it was moved to Bristol University.

Mary Halliwell legally claimed John’s skeleton and on 13 April 2011, exactly 190 years after he was hanged, arranged for him to be finally laid to rest in Hanham in a funeral ceremony attended by more than 50 mourners.

Mary’s husband, David Halliwell, went on to write about the story of John Horwood and his book, An Unjust Hanging: Sent to the gallows by folly, ignorance and a doctor’s selfish cruelty, was published recently.



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Posted by Abroad in the Yard on Friday, 14 August 2015