Milton’s poems bound in murderer skin on display

Poetical Works of John Milton bound in human fleshA very special 1852 edition of The Poetical Works of John Milton was put on public display for the first time at the Westcountry Studies Library on February 26th as part of Devon’s Local History Day. As you might have cleverly deduced from the title, what makes this volume special is that it was bound in the skin of executed murderer George Cudmore.

George Cudmore, a short, humpbacked rat-catcher, was convicted in 1830 of poisoning his wife Grace by putting arsenic in food and medicine. He claimed to have been driven to the act by his lover Sarah Dunn. Dunn confessed that she had seen him messing around with a white powder, that she had told him not to poison his wife as he would be hanged. He put it in his wife’s elder tea anyway and she saw him do it without stopping him. She said that even though she wasn’t actively involved in the murder, she did let it happen and she did live “in criminal intercourse” with Cudmore, so she felt she was equally guilty.

The jury disagreed. Dunn was acquitted and Cudmore convicted at the Lent Assizes in March, 1830. He was sentenced to hang, and to have his cadaver donated to the Devon and Exeter Hospital for dissection. On March 25th, George Cudmore was hanged from his neck until dead as Dunn watched. Cudmore’s last request was that she be be kept in Devon County Gaol and made to witness his execution. For some reason that is unclear, they fulfilled his request even though she had been judged not guilty. She reportedly fell into hysterics and fainted when he dropped.

His corpse was promptly sent to the Devon and Exeter Hospital where it was promptly dissected. It’s unclear exactly how it got from the hospital onto a book, but it’s thought that a portion of his skin fell into the hands of one Mr. W. Clifford, an Exeter bookseller, in 1853. He dressed it white (which I gather is some kind of tanning process) and bound Tegg’s 1852 edition of Milton’s Works with Cudmore’s skin. From Clifford it entered into the collection of Ralph Sanders, Esq., who left it to Exeter’s Albert Memorial Museum. Eventually it wound up in the Westcountry Studies Library where it remained in the rare book collection, out of public view, until a couple of days ago.

Senior assistant librarian Tony Rouse said: ‘It is certainly an unusual and grisly thing, but if it weren’t for the description, it would be difficult to discern its past.

‘There is no hair or stray nipple or anything like that. It is outwardly unremarkable but a closer inspection reveals it to be a surprising artefact.’

No hair or stray nipple?! EVIL DEAD LIED TO ME!1

The book is going on display this year because the theme of Local History Day is crime and punishment. There will be other talks and exhibits on the theme, including lectures on other Devon executions and witch trials.