In Episode 193, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger explore the Boston Athenaeum in search of a rare book — the 1837 memoirs and deathbed confession of thief and highwayman James Allen, alias George Walton (among others). Allen’s dying wish was to have one copy of the book bound in leather made from the skin of his own back. That one copy is embossed with the Latin: Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est. — This book is bound in the skin of Walton.
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A PDF of this book is available online courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum.
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RAY: What brings us to the heart of Boston today, Jeff?
JEFF: We’re looking for a book, Ray.
RAY: Then I guess it makes sense to be standing in front of the Boston Athenaeum right here on Beacon Street.
JEFF: A library IS a good place to look for a book. (BEAT) Let’s go inside.
[DOOR OPENS AND CLOSES]
RAY: Should we browse the fiction section? Non-fiction section? Where do we start?
JEFF: This one is going to be found in their rare book collection. The book we’re looking for has a long a clunky official title. It’s called The Narrative of the Life of James Allen, Alias George Walton, Alias Jonas Pierce, Alias James H. York, Alias Burley Grove, The Highwayman.
RAY: Yeah, that IS a long title. What makes this book so special?
JEFF: First, it’s a death-bed confession about the life of a career criminal, but it’s how the book is bound that’s particularly interesting to us.
RAY: We came into Boston just to check out the cover of an old book?
JEFF: We did, because this book isn’t just about the criminal life of James Allen, it’s covered in leather made from Allen’s skin.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger and welcome to episode 193 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes — although this week we’ll need a little more time than that… we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Boston, Massachusetts, is the next stop on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. So many of our story leads come from you legendary listeners. Just like this one did! Thanks to Janine Pipe for tipping us off. We love it when you reach out to us through social media, through our Web site, our super secret Facebook group, or when you call or text our legend line anytime at 617-444-9683.
JEFF: We do love hearing from people in our growing community. Before we go searching for this rare and macabre book, we want to take just a minute to tell you about our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals.
RAY: There’s nothing like curling up with a good book bound in human skin and sipping a warm cup of tea.
JEFF: So very true. This week I’ve been facing a lot of deadlines and house projects head-on, so I’m drinking The Warrior Tea by Nuwati Herbals. The herbs and fruits in The Warrior Tea are packed with antioxidants. Ingredients like: Blueberries, cranberries, lemon peel granules, grape seed extract, and so much more.
RAY: At the end of a long day, there’s nothing better than the Wash My Pain Away Bath Salts from Nuwati Herbals. I put in half a cup as the tub fills up and let the natural herbs and salts ease the tension in my muscles. It’s good for the body and the soul.
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RAY: Okay, Jeff, we’re looking for deathbed confession book by a former highwayman?
JEFF: That’s right. This guy was a career criminal.
RAY: But the book is bound in his actual skin?
JEFF: It is. Gross, right?
RAY: And that book is in the Boston Athenaeum?
JEFF: It is. It’s a short book. A memoir dictated by the author as he lay on his deathbed. Let’s head back to 1837 and meet James Allen.
RAY: It’s late June of 1837, and we’re at the hospital wing section of the Massachusetts State Prison in the Charlestown section of Boston. 28 year old James Allen is lying in a bed sick with consumption, as the warden is writing down everything the sick inmate is telling him.
JAMES: I made several attempts to obtain employment in the Merchant Service as a seaman, but was in every case abruptly refused by the owners. I finally succeeded in getting employment on board a market fishing schooner under Captain J. Smith, a pretty clever sort of man, when not under the influence of ardent spirits, of which article he kept a full supply on hand and was not often outdone by any of the crew in the use of it.
JEFF: James Allen was born in Lancaster, Massachusetts, about 30 miles west of here. He doesn’t have family to speak of, so he came to Boston at age 15 to look for work. That’s what landed him on Captain Smith’s vessel, and set off a string of events that would eventually lead him here to prison, dictating his confession while we watch him slowly die.
RAY: Captain Smith wasn’t just a drunk, he’s spending money he doesn’t have, including the crew’s wages. Pretty soon, Captain Smith is jailed for debt, which leaves James Allen out of a job, and to make things worse, he was never paid his last wages. So now he’s in Boston and in desperate need of money.
JAMES: Two or three days after leaving the vessel, I was requested by a man, a stranger to me, to assist him in carrying a trunk, which I presumed was his own property, to a house in Southback Street in Boston. On noticing the man more closely, I observed he looked rather suspicious and appeared to be acting with more than usual caution, which led me to apprehend that all was not right with respect to the trunk. I learned afterwards, that the man was Stephen Symms, an old State Prison convict. Symms gave me ten dollars for assisting him. This was the first proceeding in which I ever had anything to do with stolen property, and was the precursor of my future destiny.
RAY: Help some guy move a trunk for $10 bucks. Not bad, right?
JEFF: Nope, that’s a lot of money for a quick task. It was too easy, really. It’s right here that a life of crime begins. Symms offers to pay James money anytime he needs it. Obviously payment would be made for performing certain tasks that were outside of the law. At first James refuses, but as his $10 dollars dwindles in the coming week, he needs to find some cash to pay for his boarding house. That’s when Symms comes calling again with a… proposition.
[KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK]
RAY: Symms explains to James that there’s a fortune to be split. Thousands of dollars in bank notes at a store at the corner of Charles and Beacon streets. All they have to do is break-in and get it. Symms pulls out a roll of paper…
RAY: And show’s James the plan.
JEFF: It all looks so simple! A few hours of trouble for thousands of dollars? James can’t say no. That night around midnight, Symms and James bring a ladder to the store at the corner of Charles and Beacon. Symms props the ladder up to the second story window, and James scurries up the ladder and slips in through the window. Symms takes down the ladder so they don’t arouse any suspicion. Symms keeps watch outside, while James creeps through the house looking for the desk with all of those bank notes.
RAY: James finally discovers the desk he’s looking for, but when he opens the drawer…
RAY: He finds some silver and copper coins. All told, about $60 dollars. James tosses the purse to Symms, climbs down the ladder, and the two split the prize and walk away with $30 dollars each. Not the haul they expected, but still, not bad for one evening.
JAMES: This was the first time in my life that I ever was concerned in breaking into a building, or was guilty of stealing property.
RAY: A week later James finds himself in Charlestown in the cellar of the Jones and Sawyer Company. James watches an employee take some money from a pocket book containing a large amount of bank notes. Considering he’s already crossed the line, he figures stealing seems like a much easier way to make money compared to working. So that night he breaks into the Jones and Sawyer Company…
RAY: He tip-toes down to the cellar, but finds no pocket book, no bank notes, nothing.
JEFF: The next day, James tells Symms about his failed burglary, and Symms explains how the Jones and Sawyer Company was not a good target for the budding young thief. You see, businesses like these don’t leave their money unattended overnight. They usually bring it home for safe-keeping.
RAY: Still, James is committed to his new career. The money comes easy, then he doesn’t have to work for another week, or another month depending on how large the score is. In October of 1824, James returns to Charlestown and slips aboard a fishing vessel. He grabs some yards of fabric, but the heist doesn’t go as planned. He’s spotted! He runs for it.
[RUNNING FOOTSTEPS ON PAVEMENT]
RAY: But he’s caught and then arrested.
JAMES: This was the first time I was ever held in confinement. I was about fifteen years of age, and the idea of being in prison operated very painfully upon my feelings. I verily believe that if I had been discharged after the first week of confinement, I should have been honest and steady ever after. In a short time, however, jail scenes and the society of the depraved and vicious became familiar, and I lost, in a good degree, the tender feelings which influenced me on being first committed.
JEFF: In short, James is bonding with other criminals. He plans escape attempts that mostly fail, he makes contacts. When he’s released after his six-month sentence in April of 1825, he’s completely broke. With no family to help him, and no prospects for a job, he heads back into Boston to look for his old buddy, Symms.
RAY: And just like that, James and Symms are back to work. James is starting to use aliases as he checks into a new boarding house. George Walton is his main go-to, but there are others.
JEFF: While he purchases pistols to defend himself, and it’s already well-established he’s a thief, he still has lines he’s not willing to cross. One must always live by a code. James explains.
JAMES: I do not think that anyone but a coward would take human life, except in self defense. In that case I think it justifiable; and even if I was robbing a man, and found it necessary to kill him, in order to save my own life, I should not think it wrong; it would be merely acting in self defense.
JEFF: Of course if you never tried to rob a person, you wouldn’t need to act in self-defense, but I guess that’s besides the point.
RAY: Right. For his next caper, James breaks into the British Counsel’s office in Boston, but only finds a little money on-hand. Still, he’s always looking for the next score.
JEFF: And that leads James up to Keene, New Hampshire. This time he’s got a new partner with him. A partner whose name he refuses to give the warden who is furiously taking notes at his bedside. The target is a Keene bank. This is bound to be a big prize. But when they arrive at the building and successfully break in, they find they lack the tools to cut through the iron bars to get to the main vault. Still, they’re able to liberate several hundred dollars from the dank drawers before they make the dash.
[HORSE AND WAGON]
RAY: They two are miles south of Keene en route to Boston. There was some commotion back in town, but it seems to be behind them now. Suddenly some riders approach. They seem innocent enough, but once they get close, it’s too late. James and his partner are arrested for robbing the bank. James is sentenced to 10 years of hard labor for the crime.
JEFF: Prison does not suit James Allen. All he can think about is escape… and any cost. At one point he makes a run in the prison yard. He’s scaling the wall in an attempt to jump over the other side. A prison guard yells out that he must stop or he’ll fire. James tells him to go right ahead.
JEFF: James is startled by the gunfire, but he misses. James continues to climb.
JEFF: But the second shot nicks his hip with buckshot, dropping James back down to the ground.
RAY: You’d think getting shot would have taught him a lesson, but it doesn’t. James is shackled to a rock and chain, but he soon uses his stonecutting tools to break the chain. I mean, there’s nowhere to run inside the prison, but still he tries. The warden tries to plea with him to stop these escape attempts, but James explains he can’t stop trying.
JEFF: At least he’s honest.
RAY: After six years in Jail. James is set free. The prison gives him a suit of clothes, $3 dollars in cash, and his freedom. It ain’t much.
JAMES: I obtained a small accession to my funds, and proceeded to Boston with the view and in the hope of obtaining honest employment.
JEFF: Six years was a long time for James. He’s not built to be cooped up. Maybe it’s worth trying out an honest life. He learned stonecutting during his last prison stint, so he looks for work doing that… but people aren’t hiring.
RAY: Maybe they’re just not hiring ex-convicts?
JEFF: James thought of that, thus another alias as needed. But it doesn’t matter. He tries to get work at the Navy Yard, he even tries to get work assisting a shoemaker. No one is hiring, and his money is running low.
RAY: Distraught, James passes a watchmaker’s shop. He’s not intentionally casing the place, he just can’t help it. After reaching out to a local contact who said, yes, he’d consider buying watches without a lot of questions asked, James sneaks out that night.
RAY: He cuts a hole in the wall, swipes three watches, and sells them to his contact for $50 dollars. And just like that, he’s back in business.
JEFF: James uses the money to rent a room in a boarding house, buy some new clothes, and some pistols. At the boarding house he meets another man eager to make a quick buck, and that’s when James turns from a burglar and thief into a highwayman.
JAMES: We went to Roxbury and took a station near the road side in the wood, bordering on the Norfolk and Bristol turnpike. Soon, a gentleman and lady came along in a chaise; my companion seized the horse by the bridle, when the man enquired what we wanted, I answered, “Your money or your life immediately.” He exclaimed, “Well, don’t fire! Don’t fire!,” and handed me his pocket book, which on examining contained four five-dollar bank bills, one of which proved to be a counterfeit on the Boston Bank.
JEFF: While robbing another wagon, James is caught again and serves another year in the State Prison. During his discharge in 1832, the kindly warden looks James in the eye and asks him to live an honest life going forward. James tells the warden he’s going to try to be honest, but it’s unlikely…
RAY: Which if you think about it… kind of makes him honest!
JEFF: True! And just two days later, James is back to robbing people along the roads in and out of Boston. But things would take a dark turn when he tries to rob the wrong man at the wrong time.
[HORSE AND CARRIAGE]
JEFF: With a carriage approaching, James jumps up and grabs the reins. He offers the driver, a Mr. John Fenno, his usual greeting of: Your money or your life. But Fenno doesn’t care to part with his money, so he leaps at James. James is shocked! No one has done this before. There’s a scuffle. A struggle. James lifts his pistol.
JEFF: And John Fenno stumbles backward and falls to the ground. James runs for his horse and makes a break for it.
[HORSE RACES OFF]
RAY: Fortunately… or Unfortunately for James, John Fenno lives. In fact, the bullet barely grazed him. And now there’s a $100 reward for any information leading to the arrest of the highwayman who’s been plaguing Boston. All of the area criminals know it’s James Allen, errr George Walton, errr James York. And a $100 dollars for pointing your finger toward the right boarding house? Shoot, there’s no money easier than that.
JEFF: James Allen knows that too. There’s honor among thieves until there’s a bounty on the table. James races to the harbor and books himself passage on a ship bound for the West Indies. He pays a $25 deposit to the captain, then rushes back to his boarding house to gather his belongings… But the police are waiting for him.
JAMES: On the 21st of February, 1834, I was convicted and sentences to confinement and hard labor in the State Prison for twenty years. I was now in the State Prison again, after the short period of seventy three days from the time of my first discharge therefrom.
JEFF: Distraught, he tries to hang himself in his cell using his suspenders. But they break, sending him crashing to the floor. He tries to escape again, and is finally successful in September of 1834. On the lam, he makes his way up to Burlington, Vermont, where he robs a store, then on to St. Albans, Vermont, where he robs another store, then eventually all the way to Montreal in Canada where he rents himself a decent hotel room and spends a few weeks living like a tourist.
RAY: But he just can’t idle very long. Pretty soon, he’s back to his old ways.
JAMES: Finding however, that a life of inactivity was not well suited to my restless and uneasy disposition, and finding too, that my funds were getting low; I commenced active operations and broke a store owned by the Inland Forwarding Company and obtained $90 dollars in silver.
RAY: Now he’s robbing with reckless abandon. It seems as much out of boredom as need. When the heat gets too hot in Montreal, James heads back to Boston. But as soon as he returns, an old prison mate recognizes him and turns him in for the reward.
JEFF: It’s the summer of 1837, and now James Allen lays dying from consumption, and sharing his story with the warden of the Massachusetts State Prison.
JAMES: If I were permitted to live my life over again, I would be an honest man—if only it might make for a happier life in this world.
RAY: James dies from consumption July 17, 1837 at age 28. And that brings us back to today.
JEFF: Okay, so the story didn’t end with James’s death. The short memoir was published by Harrington and Company of Boston in 1837. James Allen was a criminal celebrity at the time, so folks were eager to read his whole story. James knew this book would get published, but he made a special request just before his death. He asked that one copy of the book get bound in leather made from the skin of his back.
RAY: Oh man… that’s so disgusting!
JEFF: He wanted this special copy of the book to be presented to John Fenno as a gift, because it was Fenno that ultimately lead to James Allen’s undoing.
RAY: On the day of his death, James Allen was brought to Massachusetts General Hospital where a large graft of skin was removed from his back and treated to look like gray deer skin. The book was given to Fenno, who passed it along to his daughter, who eventually donated it to the Boston Athenaeum, which is where it sits today.
JEFF: Here’s the bummer. The Boston Athenaeum doesn’t like to talk about this book anymore. We called and were told this isn’t something they wanted to be interviewed about. So unfortunately we can’t get into the rare book collection and hold it.
RAY: Oh man. That IS a bummer!
JEFF: BUT, we can do the next best thing. We can still see the book, cover and all as a PDF on their Web site.
[TYPING ON KEYBOARD]
JEFF: Check this out. There’s the whole book… though pages 6 and 7 are missing from the PDF. I let the Athenaeum know, so maybe they’ll get those pages added in the future. But check out the cover.
RAY: Oh wow… it does look like pale leather, like deerskin. And there’s an embossed title plate in gold and black on the otherwise blank cover.
JEFF: It reads Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est. This book is bound in the skin of Walton. As in George Walton, the highwayman, also known as James Allen, and several other aliases.
RAY: Why doesn’t the Boston Athenaeum want to talk about this book?
JEFF: I guess it poses some ethical dilemmas. Like should this book be buried in the ground because it’s sort of human remains? At this point the Boston Athenaeum would rather be known for other items in their collection, but still, the macabre calls out to some of us and forces us to ask questions.
RAY: Plus, in a weird way, by having this book made in his own skin, James Allen kind of made himself immortal.
JEFF: What do you mean?
RAY: He was a thief, burglar, and highwayman. He never killed anyone, at least according to his memoir, he was just a common criminal who went to jail a bunch of times and died young way back in 1837. If not for this book, bound in his skin as a curiosity for the ages, there’s no way history remembers this guy otherwise.
JEFF: That’s definitely true. And this isn’t the first or last book bound in human skin. It’s odd, but it happens. In the newspaper archives I found an article that catalogs some other skin-bound books. The Cleveland Public Library has a Quaran bound in the skin of its former owner, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia has four bound books by Dr. John Stockton Hough, he diagnosed the city’s first case of trichinosis and used his patients’ skin to bind three volumes. What’s unclear is whether the patients consented to this or not.
RAY: That is a potential problem.
JEFF: But James Allen DID consent. His wishes were carried out, and now there’s an old book bound in human skin haunting the Boston Athenaeum.
RAY: I guess sometimes you CAN judge a book by its cover.
JEFF: In this case you can. If you’d like to read James Allen’s memoir online, we posted a link to the Boston Athenaeum on our Web site. Just click on Episode 193.
RAY: We’d also like to invite you. Yes YOU to join our community of patreon patrons. For just $3 bucks per month you’ll get early access to new episodes, plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. Just head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up and help our community continue to grow.
JEFF: And if you’re into reading memoirs, please be sure to pick up my new book, The Call of Kilimanjaro: Finding Hope Above the Clouds. It’s available wherever books are sold.
RAY: We’d like to thanks Jim Harold from the Paranormal Podcast and Jim Harold’s Campfire podcast for lending his voice acting talents this week.
JEFF: We’d like to thank our sponsor Nuwati Herbals, and our theme music is by John Judd.
RAY: Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.