June 13, 2010

The Creepiest Book in Boston

The Highwayman, by George Walton

Way back in the early 1800s, a highwayman named George Walton terrorized New England. A native of Jamaica, Walton robbed banks, stole horses, broke into houses and held people up by gunpoint along the region's isolated roads.

Walton would just be another forgotten criminal if it he hadn't tried to rob George Fenno of Springfield, Massachusetts in 1833. Fenno resisted, so Walton shot him and then rode off. Unfortunately for the highwayman, Fenno's wounds weren't fatal, and he was later able to identify him.

While in prison, Walton penned an autobiography, called The Highwayman. To honor the man who put him in prison, he requested that after he died Mr. Fenno be given a copy of the book.

With one creepy catch. Walton specified that the book had to be bound in his own skin.

Walton died in prison in 1837. Surprisingly, the authorities honored his wishes regarding the book. After performing an autopsy, they removed his skin and cured it like leather. A piece of the skin was then sent to a bookbinder, who was asked to cover a copy of The Highwayman in it.
(Although the he wasn't told what leathery material he was working with, he had disturbing nightmares while it was in his possession.)

Even more surprisingly, George Fenno accepted the book. Generations later, one of his descendants gave it to the Boston Athenaeum, where it still resides today.

I joined the Athenaeum last year. It has a great collection of books, the building has great architecture, and it's filled with art. The Highwayman is kept in the Athenaeum's rare book collection, and wisely is not shown to visitors. I don't think I'd want to see it even if it were available.

I got most of my information from Joseph Citro and Dianne Fould's Curious New England. The Boston Athenaeum has a page about the book here, which is where I got the image from.


Heather Wilkinson Rojo said...

I don't think I'll ask to see it either, the next time I'm at the Atheneum. But I'll be sure to ask all about its story!

Rhea said...

OH, my. That IS creepy.

Anonymous said...

If you're interested in reading the book, the athenaeum scanned a pdf of it. http://cdm.bostonathenaeum.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15482coll3/id/4273