CHARLES SMITH AND THE HUMAN SKIN BOOKS
BY PATRICK LOW
In the dark recesses of Newcastle Library in the North East of England there is a very macabre relic. Entitled. It is a small book detailing the execution of Newcastle resident Charles Smith, hanged for the crime of murder in 1817. The book itself is almost entirely made up of execution ephemera (newspaper reports and ballads etc) however there is one very sinister looking page that looks like no other. It has a thick, dark leathery quality and if reports are to be believed it is the skin of Charles Smith's himself. So, is it? and if so, how did it get there? First lets examine the crime.
On the evening of the 4th Dec 1816, a break in took place at a Pottery in the Ouseburn, an industrial area just outside of Newcastle (now a thriving artists hub). 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 sentenced to death and the post mortem punishment of dissection by the Barber Surgeons of Newcastle. His execution was originally 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.
However, his reprieve was only temporary and, on the 3rd December 1817, Smith was processed through the streets of Newcastle 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. Remarkably, Smith gave a full and detailed speech on the gallows restating 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,
After hanging the customary hour Smith’s body was taken to the Barber Surgeons Hall in Newcastle and there dissected and anatomised. As was common practice, 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.
The eminent collector may have been a man named 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. But is it human skin? In truth, we will never know until it is fully tested, but there are numerous precedents for the practice.
The process of tanning human skin, as one might a leather, is an ancient one, dating back centuries. It could also be the stuff of nightmares, indeed in the late c18th, during the French Revolution, Royalist rumours were rife that revolutionary forces had a human tannery at Meudon to provide their leather and that Robespierre wore trousers made from human skin. There are also records of Eighteenth Century English physicians using skin as an agent for binding books. Perhaps the most famous existing example is the Skin pocket book of William Burke, that originally resided at Edinburgh's Surgeons Hall (the site of the bodysnatcher Burke's Dissection). Examples exist from the c17th and c18th but perhaps the most famous of all these books is from the c19th and housed in Edinburgh’s Surgeons Hall.
Access to the skin and body parts of criminals was made possible by the 1752 Murder Act. Records of Barber Surgeons often show that parts of the criminal that had been dissected were bequeathed to the surgeons who undertook the dissection. Numerous examples exist of criminals skin and body parts being traded and even ending up as museum exhibits to this day, from William Corder to William Burke the bodysnatcher.
Examples of this peculiar form of binding were not always using criminals skin. In 2015 Harvard University’s Houghton Library discovered that a book in their collections was bound in human skin. Using a process called Peptide Mass Fingerprinting (PMF) they confirmed that they were “99% confident” that the books binding was of “human origin.” The book in question, entitled Des destinées de l’ame by Arsène Houssaye’s was donated by the author to his close friend Dr. Ludovic Bouland (1839-1932). Given that the book was a detailed contemplation on life after death and the soul, Dr Bouland thought it apt to bind it in human skin. Bouland used the skin of a female mental patient whose body had not been claimed after death and the accompanying image is a written note in the book explaining his reasoning behind it.
So, next time you are in your library, take a closer look at the book you are reading. You might get a terrifying surprise.
BANNER IMAGE: Title page from The Execution of Charles Smith (1817). Newcastle Library
Special thanks to Sarah Mulligan and Newcastle Libraries for allowing access to the Charles Smith book and for their assistance in scanning the work.