… A Leicester Tragedy…



Penny dreadful: The Murder of John Paas by James Cook

Cook, The Murderer, Or The Leicester Tragedy: Being a Full and Faithful Account of The Horrible Assassination of Mr. John Paas, of London, on the 30th of May, 1832, Perpetrated By James Cook, Of Leicester; With An authentic detail of the cruel means adopted by the murderer to accomplish the Bloody Dead, And of the Inhuman method which he used to dispose of the Body of his Murder Victim; To Which Is Added, The Singular Manner In Which the Melancholy Fate of the Deceased Gentleman was discovered; The Flight Of The Culprit, His Subsequent Apprehension At Liverpool, And His Confession of the Barbarous Fact, With His Trial, Conviction, Sentence, And Execution.

This little pamphlet – with a very long title – is a real rarity; it is included in the Bernard Middleton[1] collection (now held at Rochester, New York) and a search online shows that there are copies at Harvard and The British Library.[2] I believe a copy was also recently sold by UK booksellers Antiquates, otherwise this is the only other copy I know of, and the only one I’ve seen first-hand. It’s missing the back cover but is otherwise complete with printed paper cover and the hand-coloured fold-out engraving which charts the ‘Bloody Dead’ in five scenes.

The murder of John Pass by James Cooke

The murder of John Paas and subsequent trial of James Cook was of national interest at the time appearing in The TimesNewspaper, and for those interested in the grizzly detail, a shorter account appeared in Printing Review a century later in 1932.[3] This has conveniently been reproduced on the Hewit’s website.[4]

There are layers of interest in this pamphlet. Firstly, it’s a curious example of a ‘Penny Dreadful’[5]; these were cheap morbid pamphlets that were produced in the mid-nineteenth century. On the verso of the cover Richardson’s lists about twenty other titles such as: Hoggart, the Murderer. and Turpin, the Highwayman. All with ‘Beautiful coloured folding frontispieces, 6d. each.’ There is a local connection for me too as I grew up in a market town in Leicestershire, but it is of course the bookbinding connection that is of primary concern to me, rather than tales of gibbets.

Little is known of Cook’s binding work, but the Paas company are well documented as the producers of fine engraved finishing tools. The company was founded by German born Cornelius Paas, and after his death in 1806 was carried on by his brother Abraham Paas. They operated in Holborn, London between 1782 and 1833. After the death of John Pass (son of Cornelius) the firm was acquired by Samuel Seare in 1833. In fact, hand-tools with the makers-mark of ‘SEARE LATE PAAS’ are quite common, if – as I do – you enjoy searching for second-hand finishing tools.

The pamphlet is referenced, but not listed, in Pollard and Potter[6] which sort of makes sense – it’s not a bookbinding manual – but there is much to interest the bookbinding historian, with an important early representation of an English bindery in the detailed hand-coloured fold-out. The bookbinding tools depicted in the scene are consistent with contemporary written accounts: there’s a laying (or cutting) press and plough, the ubiquitous collection of rolls hanging on the wall, and the (appropriately named) beating hammer – a tool that appears in virtually all depictions of pre-industrial binderies but which is now all but forgotten.[7] In the bindery we can also see a wooden standing press which has been braced to the ceiling – a detail which is reminiscent of the printing presses that survive at the famous Plantin Moretus museum in Antwerp.

Another consistent feature of a small-scale, pre-industrial English bindery is a fire. Early nineteenth century bookbinding manuals regularly mention the use of a fire to speed up the drying time: ‘The Book is then warmed by the fire, and rubbed with the folder to make the glue adhere…’ [8] Fire was also used in a bindery for finishing: before the introduction of gas finishing stoves it would seem that finishing tools were heated directly in the flames of a fire, either in the hearth (as is shown here in Cook’s bindery), or on a brazier. A good example of a brazier (albeit in an eighteenth century German bindery) appears in Englebrecht’s fabulous paper Peep-show.[9] The brazier is depicted as a small, three-legged metal bowl (a smaller version of the ‘fire pits’ that became popular in the UK during lock-down) and is positioned on the bench close to the finisher. ‘A Charcoal stove, similar to that used by tinmen, is preferable to a coal fire as the letters and tools suffer less from the former than the later; another advantage is that it may be placed near the work’.[10] It seems extraordinary to me that you could have a small fire just perched on the end your bench, but perhaps with badly insulated rooms this wasn’t such a problem, and they were just glad of the extra warmth during the cold winter months.


Arthur Green, Feb 2024

For more of this sort of thing… Arthur is speaking at the Society of Bookbinders Biennial Conference 2024 in York on bookbinding manuals.


[1] Middleton, B. C. Highlights from the Bernard C. Middleton Collection of Books on Bookbinding, 2000

[2] BL:10803.bb.19.(8)

[3] Turner Berry, W. A Case of odd sorts, Printing Review, 1932, pp.262-63

[4] https://www.hewit.com/skin_deep/?volume=21&article=3

[5] https://blogs.bl.uk/untoldlives/2011/10/credit-crunch-leads-to-murder.html

[6] Pollard G. and Potter E. Early Bookbinding Manuals, 1984

[7] Peachey, J. S. Beating, Rolling and Pressing: The compression of Signature in Bookbinding prior to Sewing, 2013

[8] Baxter, J. The Sister Arts, or A concise and interesting view of the Nature and History of Paper-making, Printing and Bookbinding, 1809 p.101

[9] Englebrecht, Martin. Augsburg, 1750

[10] R. Rees, The Circle of Mechanical Arts, 1813, p.79