John Horwood

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John Horwood (1803–1821) was a miner's son convicted of murder in Bristol, England, and executed in 1821. He was the first person to be hanged at Bristol New Gaol.[1]


John Horwood was born in Hanham, the third child of Thomas and Pheebee Horwood. Raised in a mining family, he refused to work in the mines after his older brother died in a shaft explosion.[2]

Death of Eliza Balsom (Balsum/Balsam) and aftermath[edit]

Horwood's troubled relationship Eliza Balsom, an older girl with whom he had been infatuated, came to a head in 1821.

"It appears that Horwood for some time past, teased the girl with proposals, which she had uniformly and indignantly refused: and having lattlerly endeavoured to intimidate her with his threats, she became alarmed at his conduct, and took every means of avoiding him.”[3]

This newspaper report included in The Horwood Book goes on to document multiple attacks on Ms Balsom by Horwood through 1820 and 1821 including throwing oil of vitriol (sulphuric acid) at her.

It was suggested by the prosecution at the time that John Horwood was associated with the "Cock Road Gang", notorious for being violent troublemakers.[4]

On 25 January 1821, he saw Eliza Balsom with another boy and threw a stone which struck her on the temple. The stone caused only minor injury, but she was treated at the Bristol Royal Infirmary for a depressed fracture and a theory put forward by Horwood's antecedent in a Daily Mail interview gives Dr Richard Smith's operation as the cause of a fatal abscess.[5] She died four days later[6] on 17 February 1821.[7]

According to the diary of medical cases kept by Dr Edward Estlin (ref. 35893/32/a) (online catalogue) held at Bristol Archives, Eliza Balsom's wound was greatly infected five days after the attack and Dr Richard Smith needed to clear the infection from inside the skull so undertook a trepanning procedure to cut away the bone. Smith discovered an abscess under the surface of the skull which caused the death of Eliza Balsom.[8]

Dr. Smith gave Horwood's name to the police, so police officers, sheriff's yeomen and members of the public went to Hanham to detain him.

“The villain guessed their errand, and tried to jump out from a bedroom window in his shirt… he seized a quarryman’s hammer, and placing himself on the top of the stairs, threatened, with horrid oaths, the destruction of all who approached… The villain made a great many blows with his hammer… The Officers closed upon him, knocked him down and after a desperate conflict, at last handcuffed him and dragged him to the carriage. [3]

The trial took place at the Star Inn in Bedminster on 11 April 1821,[7] with Smith testifying against him. The prosecution included a phrenological report undertaken by Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck[9] to attempt to prove Horwood's guilt by the shape of his skull. This claimed that his chief mental characteristics were 'combativeness', 'self-esteem', and 'hope', however the 'bump of murder' which was supposedly a cranial characteristic of all murderers was not present.[10] The strongest point in Horwood’s defence was that the abscess on the brain might have been caused by the unclean dressings on the wound,[11] and not directly by the stone attack though it would appear that this evidence was never put forward.

He was hanged two days later on temporary gallows erected above the New Gaol's gatehouse and his body was handed back to Smith for dissection in a public lecture[5] at Bristol Royal Infirmary.[1] The crowds gathered to watch the public hanging were so large that posters were put up warning people from being crowded over the bank of the New Cut and drowned.

Bristol Archives holds the court papers relating to the case (Ref. JQS/P/464) (online catalogue).

The Horwood Book[edit]

Horwood's friends attempted to rescue the body on its route to Bristol Royal Infirmary for 'anatomisation' (dissection) and spirit it away on the river back to Hanham. Dr Richard Smith second-guessed their plan and took the body by taxi during the night.[9]

As part of the process of 'anatomisation' Horwood's skin had to be removed. In other cases the skin would have been incinerated as medical waste, but Dr Smith being an antiquarian chose to tan the skin, and use it to bind the papers documenting the murder, trial, execution and subsequent dissection. Horwood's remains were retained for medical dissection. The cost of the binding was £1.10 shillings,[12] which is worth approximately £130 in the 21st century.[13] This book is held in the collections of Bristol Archives (Ref. 35893/36/v_i) (online catalogue) and is currently on display at M Shed museum in Bristol, alongside a contemporary dissection table, donated by Dr Richard Smith junior, which was latterly used a sideboard in a home.[14] The skin on the front cover is embossed with a gallows motif and skulls and crossbones,[15] with the Latin words Cutis Vera Johannis Horwood which translates to 'The True Skin of John Horwood'.[16] The practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy is known to have been practised since the 17th century, and it was common to use a murderer's skin in this manner during the 18th and 19th centuries.[17]

Smith kept the skeleton at his home until his death, when it was passed to the Bristol Royal Infirmary and later to Bristol University.[7] The skeleton was kept hanging in a cupboard at Bristol University with the noose still around its neck.[5]

21st century funeral[edit]

Horwood's skeleton was eventually buried alongside his father on 13 April 2011 at 1.30 pm at Christchurch, Hanham,[18] exactly 190 years to the hour after he was hanged.[19] The funeral was arranged by Mary Halliwell, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Horwood's brother.[20] The coffin was draped in velvet and carried on a wheeled bier in the manner of elegant funerals of the period of his death.[6][21]


  1. ^ a b "Bristol Museums Blog, The John Horwood Book". Retrieved 3 March 2016. 
  2. ^ Cooper, Rob (13 April 2011). "Funeral for murderer hanged in 1821 after his skeleton is found in Bristol University cupboard". Daily Mail. London. Retrieved 13 April 2011. 
  3. ^ a b Smith, Richard, ‘Shocking Outrage’, unknown newspaper cutting pasted into The Horwood Book, Bristol Archives reference number: 35893/36/V_i, p21
  4. ^ Bishop, Ian S, The Cock Road Gang, 2003, Oldland Common
  5. ^ a b c Daily Mail article, Funeral for murderer hanged in 1821 after his skeleton is found in Bristol University cupboard
  6. ^ a b "Funeral for lad 190yrs overdue". Daily Mirror. 14 April 2011. Retrieved 14 April 2011. 
  7. ^ a b c "Exactly 190 years after Bedminster trial and hanging, John Horton laid to rest". Bedminster People. Northcliffe Media Limited. Retrieved 13 April 2011. 
  8. ^ Smith, Richard, The Horwood Book, Bristol Archives reference number: 35893/36/V_i, p18
  9. ^ a b Smith MD, G. Munro, A History of the Bristol Royal Infirmary, 1917
  10. ^ Smith, Richard, The Horwood Book, Bristol Archives reference number: 35893/36/V_i,
  11. ^ Halliwell, Dave, An Unjust Hanging: The True Story of John Halliwell, Memoirs Publising, 2012, p102
  12. ^ Bill of Sale kept in the front of The Horwood Book, Bristol Archives reference number: 35893/36/V_i, p1
  13. ^ "Measuring Worth Historic Currency Converter". Retrieved 11 April 2016. 
  14. ^ "Bristol Museums Online Catalogue, Operating Table". Retrieved 16 March 2016. 
  15. ^ Briscoe, Joanna (17 April 2004). "New wrinkles on an old subject". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 13 April 2011. 
  16. ^ "BBC Bristol feature, John Horwood and his macabre book legacy". 20 September 2001. Retrieved 3 March 2016. 
  17. ^ "Hunt after book bound with human skin is found in street". Yorkshire Post. 8 April 2006. Retrieved 13 April 2011. 
  18. ^ "Bristol Post article about John Horwood's burial". Retrieved 1 April 2016. 
  19. ^ "Burial of man hanged in Bristol in 1821 to take place". BBC. 13 April 2011. Retrieved 13 April 2011. 
  20. ^ "Family of man hanged in Bristol in 1821 seek burial". BBC News. 8 November 2010. 
  21. ^ "Bristol man finally laid to rest – 190 years after his death". Bristol Evening Post. 14 April 2011. Retrieved 14 April 2011.