Human Skin

Today’s blog relates to an entry in Thomas Glazebrook Rylands’ diary for the year of 1884. The last time we looked at T.G.R’s diary (in the blog entry about Georgiana Eagle) I did allow myself to wander off the subject of the Rylands slightly, and into wider Victorian society. This, I’m afraid, I can’t resist doing again, although the entry does hopefully still tell you something about Thomas and about the Warrington he was living in.

This diary entry is from 32 years after the last entry we looked at and Thomas is now 66 years old and a respected member of the intelligentsia of Warrington. He is known for his interest in microscopes and telescopes, his study of weather patterns, and his involvement with local societies and institutions. It is thanks to his involvement with Warrington Museum that we have the following fascinating entry in his diary on 12th July 1884.


At the Museum meeting yesterday Mr. Madeley showed the newspaper report of the trial of William Heaton for the murder of Ratcliff at Burtonwood in 1831. The report was cut and mounted in a square cover made of the tanned skin of Heaton! The leather was certified by the man who tanned it.

The owner asked £10 for the thing, I offered 10 shillings.

The leather is very like pigskin as it is prepared for saddles &c. It was said that the skin came from the side of Heaton. There was little to distinguish it from mere leather.

End of transcript

There is no record of the skin of William Heaton being added to the collections at Warrington Museum, so perhaps Thomas haggled too hard and the owner took his macabre offer elsewhere?

Dissection of hanged criminals was removed from the statute book on the 1st of August 1832 by the Anatomy Act. Heaton had been hanged in March of that year, those few months meant that his skin ended up as a souvenir to reappear all those years later.

It is curious to think that in 1832, when this Heaton was executed and his skin removed for keepsakes, Thomas would already have been 14 years old, so it was no distant past to him, more a nostalgic look back to his childhood days.

The widening out of the story from Thomas’s involvement, had perhaps now better wait for the next entry, as I know there aren’t any nice pictures for me to break up the text with, and I don’t want you getting bored and giving up on the story. In the next entry I will look at the details of the murder itself.








This article was originally posted on Monday, November 17th, 2014.