Books of Human Flesh: The History behind Anthropodermic Bibliopegy

Amongst a collection of medical oddities housed at the Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh lies a tattered pocketbook [left], no longer than the length of a man’s hand. It is dark brown—nearly black—with a pebbled texture and gold lettering that has begun to fade with age. To the untrained eye, it is altogether unremarkable in its appearance. However, upon closer inspection, the words ‘EXECUTED 28 JAN 1829’ and ‘BURKE’S SKIN POCKET BOOK’ come into focus, revealing the item’s true origins.

This is a book bound in the flesh of William Burke, the notorious murderer. Between 1827 and 1828, Burke and his accomplice, William Hare, drugged and killed 16 people for the sole purpose of selling their bodies to the anatomist, Dr Robert Knox. During their murder trial, Hare turned King’s Evidence in exchange for immunity. Burke was eventually found guilty of the murders and hanged before [ironically] being dissected in Edinburgh Medical College.

The process of binding books using human flesh is known as ‘anthropodermic bibliopegy’. One of the earlier examples dates from the 17th century and currently resides in Langdell Law Library at Harvard University. It is a Spanish law book published in 1605. The colour of the binding is a ‘subdued yellow, with sporadic brown and black splotches like an old banana’. [1] On the last page, there is an inscription which reads:

The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma [possibly an African tribe from modern-day Zimbabwe, see below illustration] on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Mbesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace. [2]

Although it seems macabre to our modern sensibilities, this book was rebound as a way of memorialising the life of Jonas Wright. In this way, it is similar to mourning jewellery made from the hair of the deceased and worn by the Victorians during the 19th century. It is a poignant reminder of the life that has been lost.

Some people willingly donated their skins for the purpose of binding narratives about their lives after death. James Allen, alias George Walton, was one such person. Allen, a ‘Jamaican mulatto’, was a 19th-century highwayman. One day, he assaulted John A. Fenno on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Fenno bravely resisted the robbery, even sustaining a gunshot wound in the process. He later became instrumental in the apprehension of his attacker. On his deathbed, Allen requested that his skin be used to bind a book about his crimes, and for this to be presented to Fenno as a ‘token of his esteem’. [3]

Of course, not all books bound in human flesh were done so for the purpose of honouring the donor’s life. Some were done for pragmatic reasons, as in the case of medical texts which were bound using skin from dissected cadavers. There were also those which were covered in the skins of executed criminals, as we have seen with the pocketbook fastened from a piece of William Burke’s flesh. Far from serving as mementos or keepsakes, these items became objects of curiosity for the morbidly inclined.

And then there were books which claimed to be made from the human flesh but were, in fact, not. One example comes from the Wellcome Collection in London [left]. It is a curious little notebook which professes to be ‘made of Tanned skin of the Negro whose Execution caused the War of Independence’.  Presumably, this refers to Crispus Attucks, a dockworker of Wampanoag who was the first person killed by the British during the Boston Massacre. Immediately following his death, Attucks was held up as an American martyr. As a consequence of its alleged origins, this notebook has become a symbol of the American Revolution.

Anthropodermic bibliopegy reached its height of popularity during the French Revolution, when a fresh supply of bodies was always available. All sorts of books were wrapped in human skins, including a collection of poems by John Milton. One of the last known books to be bound in this fashion dates from 1893 and currently resides at Brown University. The binder did not have quite enough skin for the book, and thus split the piece into two – the front cover is bound using the outer layer of skin; the back cover and spine are bound using the inner layer of skin.

If you didn’t know better, you would think it was suede.

1. Samuel P. Jacobs, ‘The Skinny on Harvard’s Rare Book Collection’, The Crimson (2 February 2006).
2. Qtd. from Ibid.
3. Samuel Lowell Rich, ‘Narrative of the Life of James Allen, The Highway Man’, Boston Athenaeum : http://www.bostonathenaeum.org/node/191.

27 comments on “Books of Human Flesh: The History behind Anthropodermic Bibliopegy

  1. […] Boeken gebonden in mensenhuid. […]

  2. […] come across a lot of strange objects in my research: books bound in human skin, prosthetic noses made of silver, iron coffins with safety devices to prevent premature burial. But […]

  3. […] Anthropodermic bibliopegy, which is a fancy way of saying folks used to make books out of human skin. […]

  4. Nils Hoppe says:

    Reblogged this on Nils Hoppe and commented:
    Great read for anyone interested in body property issues

  5. […] come across a lot of strange objects in my research: books bound in human skin, prosthetic noses made of silver, iron coffins with safety devices to prevent premature burial. But […]

  6. […] blood during the dissection; the body was partially skinned and items such as wallets and a book binding were made from it. A calling card case of Burke’s skin may be seen in the Police Museum at […]

  7. [...] the binding is a ‘subdued yellow, with sporadic brown and black splotches like an old banana’. On the last page, there is an inscription which [...]

  8. Amardeep Singh Sadhra says:

    Fascinating & intriguing Lindsey as always :-)

  9. [...] you’d like to learn more about anthropodermic bibliopegy? Or why anatomical collections came into existence in the first place? What about the [...]

  10. [...] a thank you for donating, I’ll be offering you a variety of premiums: from an anthropodermic bibliopegy t-shirt, a dvd of the show, all the way up to an opportunity to have tea and syphilis cupcakes with [...]

  11. [...] heraus als ein lebendes Wesen dargestellt. Nach ein büschen Internetrecherche, bei der ich auf reales und fiktives Material fand, hier mein lebendes Buch als Pathfindermonster – mit einem Beispiel [...]

  12. [...] Fitzharris pointed out on her brilliant blog The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice earlier this year, anthropodermic bibliopegy, or book covers made of human skin were quite mainstream items once, particularly around the French [...]

  13. [...] Books of Human Flesh: The History behind Anthropodermic Bibliopegy [...]

  14. [...] books with human skin. Lots of fascinating details about the history of the process can be found here. Below is a notable example. This pocketbook is housed at the Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh, [...]

  15. [...] bărbaţi care erau de fapt femei, cuvântul ca imagine, fotografii alb/negru sub apă, cărţi din piele de om şi scrisoarea lui Kurt Vonnegut către profesorul de liceu care i-a ars cărţile Like this:LikeBe [...]

  16. [...] the binding is a ‘subdued yellow, with sporadic brown and black splotches like an old banana’. [1] On the last page, there is an inscription which [...]

  17. thegeorgiangentleman says:

    In the John Horwood murder case (Bristol 1821) the surgeon who carried out the dissection after death by the name of Richard Smith paid a local tanner one pound ten shillings to have the flayed skin tanned and made it into a book binding. The receipt is inside the cover and is held by Bristol Records Office. I will be doing a post on it shortly since it was another 190 years after death before poor John Horwoods remains were finally buried!

  18. [...] materials people starting doing all sorts of bizarre shit like hacking each other to pieces and making books out of their [...]

  19. [...] The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice provides a gruesome yet informative account of the art of Anthropodermic Bibliopegy, or the binding of texts in human [...]

  20. David F says:

    The Nazi story is true, but largely forgotten I guess. Ilse Koch used to have inmates who had tatoos she liked killed, and that part of their skin which had a tatoo on it tanned. Most were stored, I gather, but some were made into lamp-shades.

    Google her.

  21. quorlia says:

    I recall a case on the radio in the mid 90’s of a man who willed that his skin be used to bind a book. His widow was having difficulty finding someone to do it if I recall correctly.

  22. Gham says:

    I think a bigger difference is that the Nazi lampshade is a myth.

  23. Jacka says:

    ^ As the above comment notes, there is a legend about the Nazis creating furniture out of slaughtered Jews, and so after a bit of research I found one mention of a lampshade which dates from the period and which apparently does seem to be made of human skin, although there is no definite proof of its origin. I don’t dispute that it was “beneath” the Nazis to do that, but we can only say that it appears to be true. As for the case of Burke, I’m highly skeptical about this. I would of course believe it if I saw proof, but on the Edinburgh Medical College’s website it refers to the wallet as “reputedly” made from Burke’s skin. There have been worse things made from human skin (consider the Icelandic ritual of creating trousers out of the deceased), but I’m highly skeptical of how widespread such practices have been claimed to have been, because even by the messed-up standards of the day, I think that it is unlikely that these macabre things could have been done so openly, although obviously I’m willing to be proved wrong. Again, to clarify I don’t think that British people in 1829 weren’t capable of such barbarity, just that I doubt it would have been done so openly. NB: I didn’t look into any of the other claims on here, because even a pedant like me gets tired eventually. http://www.museum.rcsed.ac.uk/content/content.aspx?ID=13&CollectionID=71

    • Thanks for your insights. It is true that some books which claim to be made from human flesh are, in fact, not (i.e. the notebook from the Wellcome Collection discussed above). That said, DNA tests on several books have shown that they were bound in this fashion. The reason why the Burke pocketbook is described on the website as ‘reputedly’ made from Burke’s skin may be one of two reasons: a DNA test has not been carried out, or a DNA test has been carried out but was inconclusive. Had the library definite proof that it was not human flesh, it would state so in the catalogue.

      As a historian of early modern medicine, it is not difficult for me to believe these claims as there are other examples of books bound with the flesh of executed criminals from this period now residing in libraries all around the world. Legal records from the Old Bailey also mention this type of activity. Given the fact that Burke was dissected as a part of his punishment, and that his crimes were so notorious, it seems all the more likely to be true.

      As far anthropodermic bibliopegy being done so openly – I can only stress again that it was not necessarily macabre to contemporaries living in these periods. Consider the example of Jonas Wright. Here, the friend clearly uses his flesh to bind a book as a keepsake. Other books were bound in this fashion purely for pragmatic purposes – as in the case of medical texts being bound with the flesh of dissected cadavers.

      Perhaps most importantly, people from these periods believed that these books were bound in human flesh. Whether true or not, it is an important part of these objects’ stories.

  24. Tom Blaen says:

    This made me recall the use by the Nazis of human body parts for lampshades and other ‘decorative/functional’ uses. I guess the Nazi use is different in the small but ultimately significant sense, in that the earlier use was memorializing (either positively for a friend or negatively for a criminal) but the Nazi use was basically the de-humanizing (or animalization) of people’s bodies. If you think a Jew is like a pig then why treat their body parts any differently. With the earlier use you remember the person, with the later you forget they ever were a person.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s