Roots research led to ancestor's skeleton
JUST how Mary Halliwell tracked down her ancestor makes for fascinating reading, a real Who Do You Think You Are? "I never expected to find a real skeleton under lock and key in a cupboard in Bristol," she says.
"None of my existing family had ever heard of John Horwood, or knew that there was a convicted murderer in the family.
"Maybe the story was not passed on from generation to generation, or had just been forgotten over the passage of time.
"While researching the maternal side of my family I discovered that my great-great-great grandfather had been born in the parish of Bitton.
Business Cards From Only £10.95 Delivered www.myprint-247.co.ukView details
Our heavyweight cards have FREE UV silk coating, FREE next day delivery & VAT included. Choose from 1000's of pre-designed templates or upload your own artwork. Orders dispatched within 24hrs.
Terms: Visit our site for more products: Business Cards, Compliment Slips, Letterheads, Leaflets, Postcards, Posters & much more. All items are free next day delivery. www.myprint-247.co.uk
Contact: 01858 468192
Valid until: Friday, May 31 2013
"As I had never heard of the place I decided to search the internet, hoping to find out about its location, geography and history.
"I stumbled upon a web page about a book of human skin held in Bristol Record Office and of some papers collected by Dr Richard Smith, who had dissected the body of a John Horwood in 1821.
"The same web page claimed his skeleton was in the Bristol University Medical School and still being used for teaching purposes.
"I then discovered that the murder had taken place in Hanham, in the parish of Bitton, the birthplace of my ancestors.
"I began to wonder if John Horwood was also one.
"I contacted the Bristol and Avon Family History Society to seek advice and the resulting information proved invaluable.
"Baptism records proved that Thomas and John were brothers, two of ten children born to Thomas and Phoebe Horwood of Hanham.
"After discovering this tragic and shocking family story my curiosity was aroused and I decided to visit the Bristol area.
"Accompanied by my cousin, Marie, I left home with appointments to view both the skeleton and the book.
"Our first encounter with the past was a visit to the prison on Cumberland Road, the place of John's execution.
"The building had been demolished – only the main gate remains – but we found it very moving and upsetting being at the place where our ancestor's life had so brutally ended.
"The next day we had an appointment with Angela Wells at the Bristol University Medical School to view John's skeleton.
"We followed her up two flights of stairs before she stopped by the side of the next stairwell.
"Here she opened a padlocked cupboard door revealing a wooden case rather like the case of a grandfather clock, with a glass door front.
"Suspended inside by a brass hook attached to the top of the skull was the skeleton of John Horwood, still with a rope around his neck.
"Before I could say anything Angela explained that the rope was there to show that the skeleton was that of a felon.
"I noticed that the skeleton had very large hands – my grandfather also had very large hands.
"I placed my hands on the shoulder of the skeleton and closed my eyes, silently saying 'God Bless You'.
"Marie and I were then informed that the skeleton belonged to us and that we could do with it whatever we wished.
"This was a complete shock to both of us and we stared at each other in amazement.
"The visit left us with a deep sorrow in our hearts and a great deal to discuss as to what we could do with it."
At Christ Church in Hanham the verger helped Mary to locate the grave of Thomas Horwood, John's father, who had been buried there in 1845. Unfortunately there was no headstone.
"The following morning we had an appointment at the Bristol Record Office to view the book which had been bound with John's skin," says Mary.
"We were introduced to Katie Perry who escorted us into the research room.
"She wore white gloves and explained that we must not touch the book owing to its fragile condition.
"She removed the book from a box and gently placed it on a white cushion, taking great care when handling it.
"The first thing I noticed was the awful smell – I can only describe it as rotting leather.
"With age it had turned dark brown but I could see a skull and crossbones embossed in each corner and the inscription 'Cutis Vera Johannis Horwood', which translates as 'The skin of John Horwood'.
"My visit to Bristol over, I returned home determined to find out how Eliza and John had met their tragic deaths.
"What I was to discover would shock me and my family to the core."
An Unjust Hanging – The true story of John Horwood is by Dave Halliwell.
The book is published by Memoirs Publishing of Cirencester. Phone 01285 640485.