Devon

Book bound in human skin goes on display in Devon

Book bound in human skin
Image caption The book is an 1852 copy of The Poetical Works of John Milton

When Devon murderer George Cudmore was sentenced to hang at the Lent Assizes in 1830, he knew that part of his sentence was that his dead body would be taken to an Exeter hospital to be dissected.

What he probably was not aware of was that a chunk of his skin would eventually be flayed, tanned and used to cover an 1852 copy of The Poetical Works of John Milton.

The book is now housed at the Westcountry Studies Library in Exeter.

It will go on show to the public for the first time on 26 February as part of Devon's annual Local History Day.

An inscription in the front of the book states whose skin it is and his crime.

Cudmore, a ratcatcher from Roborough, was convicted of killing his wife Grace by poisoning.

He was hanged at the Devon County Gaol - on the site of the current Exeter Prison - on 25 March 1830.

"We don't really know why the skin was retained or, indeed, where," said Tony Rouse, senior assistant librarian.

"It must have been kept somewhere until 1853 when it was used to cover the book."

Image caption The book is inscribed with information on whose skin it is made from

While binding books in human skin is not common, it is not unusual, says Mr Rouse.

The practice is known as anthropodermic bibliopegy and seems to have been most popular during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Many of the first books covered in human skin were medical books - the skins were primarily from amputated body parts and unclaimed corpses.

Occasionally, as in the case of Cudmore, the skin of executed prisoners was used.

"It sounds grim but if I gave you the book to hold and didn't tell you what it was covered in you would never know, it just looks like normal leather," said Mr Rouse.

And although no-one knows for sure who covered the book there are some theories it was Exeter bookseller W Clifford, as his bookseller's ticket was discovered in the front of the book.

The bookplate in the front of the volume shows it was once part of a Mr Ralph Sanders' library, which was probably donated to the Exeter City Library, eventually ending up in the Westcountry Studies Library.

This year's local history event has a crime and punishment theme and as well as the book, the Exeter witchcraft trials and executions and the sites of the gallows in the county are up for discussion.

"I would really encourage people to come and have a look," said Mr Rouse.

"It's not been on display before and it's really not as gruesome as it sounds, although it is certainly one of the more unusual items we have here."

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