skin, human

skin, human
   There are a number of stories about humans being flayed (alive or dead) and their skin being displayed or used for various purposes and, perhaps surprisingly, there is a factual basis to many of them. The first class of story involves human skin nailed to church doors. At least six places have this tradition, and probably more, as it has the ring of *tour guide lore about it: Hadstock, Copford, and Castle Hedingham (all three in Essex), Rochester Cathedral (Kent), Worcester Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey (London). According to Tyack, Rochester and Castle Hedingham had legends only, while the other four had real fragments of skin still surviving in the 19th century which were analysed and 'proved' to be human. In most cases, the victim is claimed to be a marauding Dane, guilty of the worst crime - sacking a church. Samuel Pepys' diary entry for 10 April 1661 records: 'Then to Rochester and there saw the Cathedrall . . . Then away thence observing the great doors of the church, as they say covered with the skins of the Danes'. Few of the doors in question are sufficiently old to be survivors from the time of Danish incursions, but the core of the story is actually the gross sacrilege, and it seems that this barbaric punishment really was used for this particular crime. Nevertheless, many of the reports of the scientific testing of the skin include the phrase 'of a fair-haired person' - sufficiently often for it to appear to be a folkloric motif in itself.
   The other class of story is much more recent. From 1752 the bodies of all executed murderers were handed over to surgeons on which to practise their dissection techniques and anatomy lessons. The skins of a surprising number of famous murderers have been preserved, either previously on show in medical museums or used to bind books about them, such as that of William Corder (the murderer of Maria Marten in the infamous Red Barn Murder) at Moyse's Hall Museum, Bury St Edmonds; numerous other examples are listed in Notes & Queries in the 1920s and 1930s. A stray tale reported in N&Q (148 (1925), 424; 149 (1925), 14) concerns a straggler from the Young Pretender's army on their retreat from Derby in 1745 being killed by the Duke of Cumberland's men and his skin used to make a drum.
   ■ George S. Tyack, 'Human Skin on Church Doors', in William Andrews (ed.), The Church Treasury of History, Custom, Folk-Lore etc. (1898), 158-67; N&Q2s:2 (1856), 68, 119, 157, 250-2, 299, 419; 4s:4 (1869), 56-7, 101-2; 4s:5 (1870), 310-11; 4s:10 (1872), 352, 448, 454-5; 4s:11 (1873), 138, 292, 373; 9s:12 (1903), 429, 489-90; 10s:1 (1904), 15, 73-4, 155, 352; 10s:2 (1904), 14-15; 150 (1926), 459; 151 (1926), 68-9; 159 (1930), 303; 163 (1932), 250-1, 302, 356, 394; Ruth Richardson, Death Dissection and the Destitute (1987).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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