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The notion of flaying the human body and tanning the hide is an old 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. Other legends such as that of Zisca's drum made of his own skin and the thirteenth century Bible in the Bibliotheque Nationale made on parchment from peau de femme are not so easy to prove. Similar folklore is the medieval Bavarian belief that anthropodermic girdles were effective aids to childbirth.
In modern times the growth of interest in the possibility of tanning the human exuviae has risen slowly. The first authentic notice on the subject in recent centuries is the information that William Harvey presented the College of Physicians with a tanned human skin. Among the first to put tanned human skin to practical use was Anthony Askew (1722-1773), physician, bibliophile, and classicist, who had a Trait d'anatomie bound in the human integument. Another English physician, John Hunter (1728-1794) had an Abbandlung uber die Hautkrankbeiten put up in a healthy cured human skin.
On the other side of the Channel French physicians were also taking some note of the possibilities of human leather. Valmont de Bomarel reports that a celebrated Parisian surgeon, M. Sue, gave to the Cabinet du Roi a pair of slippers made of human skin. Valmont reports further that this same museum owned a belt of human skin on which the vestiges of a nipple were clearly distinguishable, and another piece consisted of the last two fingers of a right hand, including the nails. Further up the coast in the Low Countries Hermann Boerhaave (1668-1738) had formed a collection of medical curiosities including a pair of lady's highheeled shoes made of leather from the skin of an executed criminal. Again here the nipple was used as an ornament, adorning the front of the instep. However, no systematic interest was taken by the medical profession in the practical uses of human leather until the nineteenth century. Possibly it resulted from the impetus given to anthropodermic bibliopegy and related arts by the French Revolution. Few histories of the Revolution omit references to the infamous Royalist propaganda to the effect that a gigantic human skin tannery at Meudon filed all the requisitions for the leather goods needed by the revolutionary army quartermasters. Likewise, most of us who have made the grand tour or read guidebooks on Paris are familiar with the Carnavalet Museum's copy of the French Constitution of 1793 which is contained in a piece of human skin dyed a light green.
At all events, we find in early nineteenth century England a remarkable tendency on the part of the courts to include in the sentences of condemned criminals a provision that their bodies be delivered to local surgeons for disection, and on several occasions the hides of these scoundrels were immortalized. Possibly this type of sentence was intended as an antidote for the notorious practice of "Burking," so-called from the profession of William Burke, who earned his bread by murdering the good citizens of Edinburgh and selling the cadavers to a local physician for dissection. When Burke himself was finally apprehended and executed in 1829, a portion of his skin was tanned. Part went to make a wallet for the doorkeeper of the anatomical classroom in Edinburgh. A larger piece which was tanned and dyed a dark blue fell into the hands of the publisher of Burke's trial, who had it cut into small pieces and distributed to various friends. One portion of it was included in the remarkable collection of papers relative to Burke and Hare which was formed for Sir Walter Scott and retained in the library of the bard at Abbotsford after his death.
The early issues of Notes and Queries are full of accounts of criminals whose integuments were removed subsequent to dissection and delivered to the tanner. The earliest known instance of a criminal whose body was ordered by the court to be dissected is found in the sentence of one James Johnson, condemned to the gallows on March 19, 1818, by Mr. Justice Dallas of the Norfolk Assizes, who also ordered that the culprit's body "be delivered to the surgeons to be anatomized." Following the execution, which took place on the Castle Hill, Norwich, in the presence of 5,000 spectators, the dissection was performed by Mr Wilson, "a gentleman from London", and Mr Austen, "a pupil of Mr Dalrymple's, who prepared the body for a series of daily lectures delivered by a Mr Crosse".
Another early case on record is that of a youth of eighteen named John Horwood, who was hanged on April 13, 1821, at Bristol New Drop for the aggravated murder of Eliza Balsum. Richard Smith, senior surgeon of the Bristol Infirmary, was given authority by the court to dissect the body; and after a course of lectures ad populum on respiration and circulation which he based on the corpse, he flayed the body and tanned the skin. The skeleton he preserved in a cabinet of curiosities, principally relics of executed criminals; and near this museum piece he placed a bound collection of Horwoodiana with a label on the back (some 6" x 3") of tanned human cuticle. It resembles light russia, has tooled borderlines in gold with a skull and crossbones stamped in each corner, and a gilt inscription in blackletter: "Cutis Vera Johannis Horwood". The book is still in the Bristol Royal Infirmary.
About five or six years after the execution of John Horwood, William Waite went to the gallows at Worcester for the murder of his wife's daughter (by a former husband), a little girl named Sarah Chance, by throwing her into an exhausted coalpit. Dissection was a part of his sentence, and after dissection his entire skin was flayed by a Stourbridge surgeon named Downing. It was not tanned but rather preserved in a sumach preparation.
One of the most celebrated dissections which resulted in ultimate tanning of the hide was that of ratcatcher George Cudmore, executed in the Devon County Jail in 1830 for the murder of his wife, Grace, with the assistance of a woman named Sarah Dunn. The Dunn woman, incidentally, was forced to witness the execution of her accomplice, and she is said to have fallen into hysterics and fainted when the drop fell. Cudmore was dissected at the Devon and Exeter Hospital. Subsequetnly his tanned skin fell into the hands of W. Clifford, a bookseller of Exeter, who used it for binding a copy of Teggs's 1852 edition of Milton. This book was at one time in the library of Ralph Sanders of Exeter, but it is now in the Albert Memorial Library of that city. The skin is dressed white and looks something like pigskin in grain and texture.