WIFE-KILLER William Cadwallader was hanged outside Hereford gaol on April Fool's Day, 1816. The Leominster blacksmith's body was handed over to surgeons for dissection and, after the knives had done their work, the skin was nailed to the door of St Peter's Church.

It was a gruesome custom of the times for the flesh to be shared out among Herefordshire notables. Among those receiving the grisly gift was the Arkwright family.

The piece of skin was handed down from father to son during the next 152 years until it came into the possession of David Arkwright, of Kinsham Court, Presteigne.

In 1968 he presented the hideous hide to the public at large for posterity and explained: "It was just lying about the house, so I thought that it would be better to give it to the museum."

Hereford librarian JFW Sherwood received the weird exhibit and commented: "As far as I know this is the first time that we have had any human skin in the museum and it will always be useful if someone comes in and wants to know what tanned human skin looks like."

So how did Cadwallader come to be skinned dead? He paid the ultimate price for the murder of his wife, Mary, who suffered a violent end to a life of poor health.

Drunken rage

The burly blacksmith and his ailing, bedridden wife were on bad terms and neighbours had frequently heard them quarrelling.

On the evening of September 4, 1815, Cadwallader - much the worse for drink - returned home in a great rage, knocked a cooking pan out of his mother-in-law's hands and drove her from the house with blows and curses. He accused his wife of being idle rather than sick and said he would willingly pay a guinea a week to be rid of her.

The petrified Mrs Cadwallader rose from her bed and shouted and screamed to neighbours for help. When they tried to become involved the angry husband's wrath increased.

At 5.30 the next morning the blacksmith woke his apprentice and hurried him off to an emergency repair of a coach at the other end of Leominster. No-one was at the locked-up premises and the lad returned, feeling he had been despatched on a fool's errand.

There was an autumn nip in the air and later that morning Cadwallader's neighbour came home to warm himself. He popped into the garden and was confronted with a sight that chilled him even more.

Mary Cadwallader's body was lying in the hedge between the two houses - apparently having fallen or been thrown from an upstairs window.

It had rained all night, but her clothing was quite dry.

His cries soon brought a crowd to the house and among them was a boy who was later to swear that he had seen the blacksmith in the garden at 6 o'clock.

The owner of the broken coach next came on the scene to complain that it had not been repaired. He later testified in court that the blacksmith was distraught and shaking.

At Hereford Assizes in March, 1816, Cadwallader stoutly swore his innocence, but the stories of drinking, quarrels and violence did not help his cause and he was swiftly found guilty.

Awaiting execution Cadwallader expressed ready sorrow for his misspent life and confessed to being a drunkard. But he maintained to the end he was innocent of his wife's murder.

A large crowd turned out to watch the hanging, many of the ghouls buying an 'execution special' news sheet produced by the Parker brothers, an enterprising firm of jobbing printers.