Amidst all the clamour surrounding Brexit a slightly smaller rabble have been rousing about the use of tallow (animal fat) in the new five pound notes.¹ Merits of the argument aside it has come at a particularly convenient time in my work as I am currently looking at another controversial product used in every day items – Human Skin. Yes, you heard correctly, this last week I have been researching and writing about the practice of Anthropodermic Bibliopegy, better known as the practice of binding books in human skin. Now, if that isn’t great pub quiz knowledge then I don’t know what is!
As is so often the case in the blog, there have been some serendipitous moments in my study that have led to this entry. Chiefly that Newcastle’s very own human skin book (of which more later) is ‘purportedly’ made from the skin of a man, Charles Smith, executed this very week in 1817. Even more coincidental, the site of the murder, for which he was hung, was a Pottery in the Ouseburn and this week I have been working out of my girlfriend’s shop (in the Ouseburn – a few doors done from a pottery). So, I thought what better subject for this weeks blog than the case of Charles Smith and how he went from an Ouseburn Pottery to become a, very real, page in a book on his life. First though, a bit of background on Anthropodermic Bibliopegy and the use of human skin as a leather.
The practice of tanning human skin is an ancient one.
“According to Herodotus the Scythians cultivated the art. In Saxon Britain it was customary for certain types of offenders to pay a hyd-geld to save their skins, and marauding Danes who committed sacrilege in the churches were flayed and their skins nailed to the church doors.”
Lawrence S. Thompson, “Tanned Human Skin,” Bulletin of the Medical Library Association 34, no. 2 (April 1946)
However, examples of books bound in skin are a comparatively late occurrence. Rumours abounded in c18th France of revolutionaries having a “gigantic human skin factory at Meudon” which serviced all the leather needs of the movement. A notion largely discredited in subsequent studies, although the same studies note the existence of two copies of the French Constitution, at the Musée Carnavale, bound in human skin.² Similarly, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century skin bound books were often found in the collections of leading medical men, John Hunter being just one.
The books themselves were often bound with the skin of a criminal, more specifically murderers. There is one very obvious reason for this, Dissection. The terms of the 1752 Murder Act meant murderers’ bodies were handed to the Surgeons to be dissected and anatomised and it is here that various liberties were often taken with what was left of the criminals’ corpse. Numerous records show that Surgeons would take portions of the skin for tanning and in some cases keep the bones as mementos. One might ask why.
“Body parts were put to a variety of uses: scientific, practical, ritual and, most of all, as curios which emitted a kind of contagious glamour from the notorious criminal himself. Parts of an authentic and famous body were desirable commodities in the nineteenth century.”
Sarah Tarlow, “Curious Afterlives: The Enduring Appeal of the Criminal Corpse,” Mortality (Abingdon, England) 21, no. 3 (July 2, 2016)
The criminal corpse was a tradeable and highly sought after collectible. Firstly, as a site of healing. Many would attend the gallows to try and attain a wood splint, popularly believed to be a cure for toothache. Similarly, a stroke by the right hand of an executed criminal was believed to possess healing powers. This notion has its roots in Christian belief,
The New Testament refers to the healing power of objects that were touched by Christ or his apostles. The body of the saint provided a spiritual link between life and death, between man and God: “Because of the grace remaining in the martyr, they were an inestimable treasure for the holy congregation of the faithful.”
Author: Barbara Drake Boehm, “Relics and Reliquaries in Medieval Christianity | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art,” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, accessed November 22, 2016,
Indeed the Catholic Church, in particular, still makes great use of Reliquaries.
Now, where does Charles Smith fit into all of this.
On the evening of the 4th Dec 1816, a break in took place at a Pottery in the Ouseburn. Charles Stewart, the keeper, was sleeping on the premises to protect the property and was beaten severely by two intruders. They tied his legs together and covered his head, leaving him for dead. Afterwards they robbed the pottery. However, Stewart had recovered by the morning and to such a degree that he was able to relate what happened and more importantly, claimed he recognised the voice of one of the assailants as that of Irishman, Charles Smith. Stewart later died of his injuries (on the 25th of the same month) but remained adamant of Smith’s guilt.
Charles Smith was a 49 year old Irish Roman Catholic employed as a pan man in the pottery. He was immediately arrested and taken to the Infirmary where Stewart was being treated in order for him to be able to identify Smith – which he duly did. Despite his protestations Smith was eventually found guilty and his execution was ordered for Monday 18th August, 1817. However, it appears that the Judge was later unsure of Stewart’s ability to properly confirm Smith as the criminal, given the serious blow he had received on the head. It was this that gave the Judge reason to delay the decision.
A respite arrived the preceding evening, from the Judge, then at Carlisle, till the 24th of November; owing to a point of law referred to the twelve judges, on some informality of the evidence of the deceased.
An Account of the Crime, Trial, Confession, and Execution of Charles Smith. (Marshall, Printer, Newcastle) Held in Bodleian Library’s John Johnson Collection.
However, his reprieve was only temporary and, on the 3rd December 1817, Smith was processed to the Town Moor to be hung by the neck until dead. Smith denied his involvement to the last and he even drew up and signed a declaration of his innocence. Whilst it is not the intention of the blog to re-examine the case, I will say that, of the many I have studied in this region, Smith’s is one of the most dubious I have come across. Numerous mistakes were made in the evidence gathering and the initial identification was entirely based on his voice and, as was shown in court, Smith was one of many Irishmen working in Ouseburn potteries at the time.
Remarkably Smith gave a full and detailed speech on the gallows retaining his innocence and forgiving those who had spoke against him. One can only imagine the power of a man awaiting death proclaiming his innocence to the assembled cried. Smith declared,
“As I am going to meet my God, I do declare that I never shed the blood of Charles Stewart nor that of any human creature, nor had I ever such intention, nor did ever such an idea enter my mind, as I always had the greatest abhorrence of murder….I deny the whole……but I forgive all from my heart, and hope God will forgive them.
Charles Smith’s Last Dying Words on the gallows – Carlisle Patriot 13th December 1817
The same paper that reported his last words was not convinced of his innocence.
Notwithstanding these hardy assertions, made in a moment so awful, those who recollect the circumstances ….can have no doubt whatever of his guilt.
After hanging the customary hour Smith’s body was taken to the Barber Surgeons Hall in Newcastle and there dissected and anatomised. Smith’s body was available for public viewing and The Tyne Mercury reported that “numbers of persons assembled on that and every succeeding day during that last week to view it.” More often than not, that is the end of the story, but just under a year later the following note appeared in the Durham County Advertiser.
An eminent collector and antiquarian of Newcastle is possessed of a piece of the skin of the late Charles Smith, executed near that town last year for the murder of Charles Stewart, which he had tanned and dressed for the purpose of binding a large paper copy of the murderer’s dying speech!!! –
Durham County Advertiser, 3rd Oct 1818
The eminent collector was most likely John Bell. Bell had a bookshop on Newcastle’s Quayside and was well known as a rare books and coin collector. Indeed, it is in the John Bell Collection that the book still resides today in Newcastle Library. Sadly, no pictures are allowed and access to it is very restricted (I am working on that!). The book itself is a fascinating collection of execution ephemera (ballads, broadsides) and towards the back there is a page that is unmistakably some form of dark brown leather. Whether this is human or animal skin we still don’t know (watch this space!).
- Regarding the five pound note tallow debate, I found this article rather amusing, which calculated the actual cost of animal life in the production of the notes – spoiler alert it’s 1/2 of one cow for all the £5 notes currently in circulation (although on a deeper look, many of their sources are wikipedia! make of that what you will).
- Massive thanks to Dr Laura O Brien (@lrbobrien) who translated the following article for me http://next.liberation.fr/culture/2013/07/05/revolution-francaise-sauve-qui-peau_916314 (a review by Domonique Kalifa)
Given there’s been a lot of talk of trinkets and tradeable commodities, I thought this would be the perfect time to plug my girlfriend’s new online shop! Sadly, no human skin available for all you collectors out there, just beautiful homewares and plant/flower related fineries. There’s even a xmas offer of free delivery on orders over £75. For any of you purists who prefer the real shopping experience, she’ll be open every Fri-Sun in the in the run up to Xmas (12-4). and you may even get to see me in an apron!
DISTRACTION 2: Who’d u f***ing think u r mush!
I very rarely tune in to Who Do You Think You Are, but I recently caught an episode with Danny Dyer and it was a joy. I won’t spoil it for you as it’s a fascinating story, but it’s worth watching alone for the landed gentry pretending they are okay with him being related to them.
DISTRACTION 3: Vic and Bob
My good friend and comedy partner Hal Branson was lucky enough to be called up on stage with Vic and Bob last week and has since posted this brilliant clip of one of their sketches. It was also my lovely Uncle’s birthday recently (a big Vic and Bob fan) so what more reason do I need than that to post it myself!
2 thoughts on “Murder in the Ouseburn and Books of Human Skin”
John Bell was my great, great, great, great grandfather. I have been lucky enough to see the book you mention and have a photo.
best wishes Karen Robinson
Hi Karen, Thanks so much for getting in touch. What a great family connection, his collections at the Central library are so fascinating. Such an extraordinary mix of ephemera, history and local interest.