A good writer knows how to grip the imagination of the reader in such a way that the words leap from the page and burn themselves in the reader’s mind. Reading the work of a truly great writer is, essentially, inviting that writer to get under your skin. This is, of course, a figurative expression. No one really expects to peel back human skin and find the written word. This is true, of course, unless you happen to be holding an extremely rare volume of an 1852 edition of John Milton’s Poetical Works.
George Cudmore seemed destined to be remembered — but for none of the right reasons. His short, hunchbacked stature made him physically unattractive, but that was nothing compared to the repulsiveness of what lay under the skin.
Cudmore made his living as a rat catcher in Roborough, United Kingdom. Despite his appearance and unsavory occupation, he somehow succeeded in gaining the affections of a woman named Grace, whom he married.
Cudmore was incapable of recognizing his good fortune and allowed his eye to wander. He soon found himself engaged in an extramarital affair with a woman by the name of Sarah Dunn.
Cudmore knew he could not maintain both relationships for long, so he decided to get rid of Grace. When she died, Cudmore thought he was at last free to pursue his romance with Sarah without hinderance.
Alas, fate continued to frown on the wretched man. Authorities found Grace’s death suspicious and began an investigation. They soon determined that she succumbed to copious amounts of arsenic that somehow showed up in her food and medicine.
Some of the most damning evidence came to light when none other than Sarah Dunn reported that she witnessed Cudmore messing around with a suspicious-looking white powder. She said she suspected he might be planning something most foul and strongly urged him not to use the powder on his wife. She also said that she warned him he would meet the hangman and his noose if he pursued such nefarious plans.
Cudmore, whose inadequate appearance was matched only by his subpar IQ, was befuddled when the object of his affections turned against him. To get even, he admitted that he did, indeed, poison his wife, but he said he was driven to the act by Sarah Dunn. His reasoning? He said that he put the arsenic in his wife’s tea, but since Sarah saw him do it and did nothing to stop him, she was the one who really should bear the guilt.
Cudmore and Dunn were each charged with Mrs. Cudmore’s murder. George was charged with committing the actual crime, while Sarah was charged with “criminal intercourse” — the 19th century equivalent of being an accessory to a crime.
The jury heard the evidence and rendered their verdict. Sarah Dunn was acquitted and lived the rest of her life as a free woman. The jury was less kind toward George Cudmore. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang until dead. Furthermore, upon his death, his cadaver was to be turned over to the Devon and Exeter Hospital for dissection.
The sentence was carried out on March 25, 1830. The only kind thing one can say about the actual hanging was that George Cudmore grew by a few inches in the last seconds of his life as his neck stretched at the end of the hangman’s rope.
One of his last requests was that Sarah Dunn be an official witness to his execution. As his neck snapped, Sarah reportedly fell into hysterics and fainted away. George’s body was carted off to the Devon and Exeter Hospital where it was promptly dissected and studied by medical students.
This sad and strange story would end there, except for a curious twist of fate. For reasons now unknown, George’s skin, once removed, was preserved and placed in storage. There it remained for nearly a quarter of a century.
In 1853 a portion of the deceased murderer’s skin fell into the hands of one Mr. W. Clifford, an Exeter bookseller. He treated the skin through a tanning process and looked around his bookstore for a volume in need of a new cover. He found the worthy candidate in Tegg’s 1852 edition of Milton’s Poetical Works. Clifford bound the book with the infamous flesh and offered it for sale, after first noting the origin of the curious cover in a bookplate inside.
The book made its way in the 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 remains in the rare book collection.
While binding books in human skin is not common, it is not unheard of. The practice actually has a name: anthropodermic bibliopegy. The practice reached its peak popularity during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Many of the first books covered in human skin were medical books, with the skins coming largely amputated body parts and unclaimed cadavers. 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 Tony Rouse, senior assistant librarian at Westcountry Studies Library in Exeter, United Kingdom.
Thus ends the gruesome story of a hideous man. George Cudmore, who was ugly, both inside and out, finally found the fortune of housing something beautiful under his murderous skin.