Features / m shed

The tale of the book bound with human skin – told through a feminist lens

By lowie trevena with angela innes, Friday Oct 16, 2020

“I read about this 18-year-old who was the first person to be hung at the New City Gaol after murdering a girl he was interested in,” says researcher Angela Innes. “His skin was then used to bind a book, containing the court proceedings of his case.”

22-year-old Angela, who is also a poet and a graduate in forensic science, became enthralled in the tale of Bristol’s book bound in human skin, one of the most gruesome artefacts on display at the M Shed.

After falling deep into research on the origins of the book, and the case that it documents, she decided to tell the story of the relic through the eyes of the victim.

The book is bound in the skin of 18-year-old John Horwood, who was found guilty in 1821 of murdering Eliza Balsam, who was 19.

The book bound with human skin can be found in M Shed. Photo: Bristol Museums

Eliza and John grew up neighbours in Hanham. John became obsessed with Eliza, but she repeatedly rejected his requests for sex or a relationship.

Eliza’s mother has heard him say he would “mash her bones as small as ashes” and accounts from others say he threw a bottle of vitriol (sulphuric acid) over her at a party.

At the end of January of 1821, Eliza was on a walk with another man in Hanham. John Horwood, who was with two of his friends, watched as Eliza crossed a stream and ducked down, so she could not see him, and threw a stone. The stone struck Eliza in the left side of her head, around her temple.

Eliza was transported to the Royal Infirmary, but later died from her injuries – but there are accusations her death was the result of the surgeon’s malpractice.

Following her passing, Horwood was tried for “attempting, through jealousy to murder Elizabeth Balsam”, charged with murder and hung at the New City Gaol – now part of Wapping Wharf.

The 18-year-old’s body was then dissected and used to bind the book now in the M Shed.

Angela carried out this research of her own accord – she visited Bristol Archives, read family memoirs and investigated the original texts – but found that there were few accessible online resources for people to learn about the case.

As a YouTuber, she decided to create a video documenting the case, with a feminist twist.

“What started with a single exhibit in a museum, lead me to city archives, hours of research and learning about the dark corners of one of my newly favourite cities,” says Angela.

“There is hardly any mention of Eliza online. I wanted to retell this tale from a feminist perspective, in a way that was easily accessible.”

The video that Angela, who is currently studying a MRes in gender and sexuality, is an in-depth and unique view on a case that fascinates people to this day.

“I made lots of videos as a forensics undergraduate,” Angela, who lives in Stokes Croft, explains. “I wanted to share my knowledge.

“Forensics, and university more broadly, is elitist. I wanted to make knowledge more accessible.

“People have a morbid curiousity with death, whether that’s a love for horror movies, a fascination with the process of death or an interest in true crime.”

Angela Innes has been making videos for almost eight years. Photo: Lowie Trevena

Angela’s research into the deaths of Eliza Balsam and John Horwood are extensions of her work in forensics and research, much if which she continues to share in free, easy to understand videos on her YouTube channel.

“But what of Eliza?” asks Angela. “Her descendants were not contacted. The true crime is that Eliza, like countless other women, was erased from the story of her own death.”

Additional research thanks to Angela Innes.

Main photo: Angela Innes

Read more: Behind the scenes at the M Shed

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