There are few things more evocative to book lovers than an old room full of leather-bound tomes. Though I suppose it depends on where the leather came from. Snake, fish, and elephant skin have all been used at times to create the rich leather coverings of books—but so has human skin. Known as anthropodermic bibliopegy, it is, thankfully, rare for books to be made of human skin, but examples have been confirmed by scientific analysis.
Here are ten books bound in human skin you might not want on your shelves.
10 The Highwayman
The Boston Athenaeum is a private library founded in 1807. Nestling among its many old books is one titled, in full, Narrative of the Life of James Allen, alias George Walton, alias Jonas Pierce, alias James H. York, alias Burley Grove, The Highwayman. Being His Death-bed Confession, to the Warden of the Massachusetts State Prison. At first, it just looks like any other 19th-century work bound in fine white leather. But on its front cover, there is a Latin inscription stating, “This book is bound in the skin of Walton.”
The Walton in question was the man who authored the book: George Walton, who made his ill-gotten money by burglary and highway robbery. He was an honest sort of thief, however, in that he did not like to take a person’s life—unless he had to. One of those he tried to rob, John Fenno, fought back. This manly resistance so impressed Walton that when he was dying of lung disease in prison, he ordered a copy of his confession to be bound in his skin and presented to Fenno.
9 The Dance of Death
It is perhaps not unsurprising that many books bound in human skin deal with macabre matters. Humans have long been interested in the topic of death, so there are plenty of texts that might be embellished with a bit of human flesh.
Hans Holbein was the great artist of Henry VIII’s court. As well as grand and intimate portraits, he was also a skilled illustrator. In the 1520s, he created images relating to death that were published in a work known as The Dance of Death. Many of the woodcuts included satirical subtexts, such as a king dining with skeletons to show that even the highest monarch is mortal.
It was a copy of this book that was bound in “white human skin.” Today it sits in the stores of Brown University’s library, not on display to the public. The archive details describe it as being decorated with arrows, knuckle bones, and death’s heads. Analysis of the proteins in the leather confirms it is human but who gave their skin for the book remains unknown.
8 The Land of the Sky
Camille Flammarion was a famous French astronomer of the early 20th century. But his interests also took in the supernatural. He was also known for making somewhat extraordinary claims, such as Martian attempts to contact Earth and that gas from Halley’s Comet might end all life on our planet. He was not without his fans, however, as we shall see.
A young French countess was said to be so obsessed with Flammarion that she had a portrait of him tattooed on her skin. When she became deathly ill with tuberculosis, she made a request to her doctor. He was told to have a piece of skin taken from her back, turn it into leather, and give it Flammarion to be used to bind one of his works. This was done, and Flammarion chose a work called The Land of the Sky to be the lady’s final resting place.
Flammarion had a message placed on the front of his book that reads, “Pious fulfillment of an anonymous wish. Binding in human skin (woman) 1882.”
7 The Destinies of the Soul
What could be more fitting for a book dealing with the incorporeal human soul than a binding made from the matter of a material human body? Des destinées de l’ame (The Destinies of the Soul) was written by the French author Arsène Houssaye, and it was one of his medical friends, Dr. Ludovic Bouland, who decided it needed a human covering.
Bouland used a copy he was gifted by the author and gave it its new binding. A letter inside the book by Bouland reveals his choices in doing so. “This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully, you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman.” He also notes how this human leather looks different from another example he had in his library.
Today the book is in Harvard University’s collection. Another book in Harvard’s collection has an inscription that reads, “The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma 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.” Other books in the library, also believed to be bound in human skin, were tested and revealed to be sheepskin, making The Destinies the only of its kind at Harvard.
6 Medical Texts
In the College of Physicians in Philadelphia, there are three books that were rebounded in the 19th century by Dr. John Stockton Hough. Hough, just 23, had made a remarkable discovery in 1869 when he found a lady called Mary Lynch had died not from TB as had been suspected but from Tichinosis—her flesh was riddled with parasitic worms. To celebrate his successful autopsy, he cut a patch of skin from her thigh and turned it into leather. It seems unlikely that Lynch had given her consent for this.
The skin Hough used was placed in a chamber pot for several months to turn it into leather. Once he had the leather, he waited 20 years to use it. The three texts he chose to bound were all about female anatomy, impregnation, and childbirth. Mary Lynch’s skin was used to cover the spines of the texts, and Hough made a note in each book to be sure future readers knew it was human skin they were holding.
Hough was not only interested in the skin he had collected himself. He also owned another book bound in human skin in which he noted it was made from “skin from around the wrist of a man who died in the [Philadelphia] Hospital 1869—Tanned by J.S.H. 1869. This bit of leather never boiled or curried.”
5 “The Gold Bug”
Edgar Allan Poe was one of the masters of eerie and strange tales in the 19th century. If auction records are to be believed, one of his works ended up covered in human skin.
“The Gold Bu” is a short story about a man bitten by a golden beetle and the hunt for a hidden pirate treasure. The treasure seekers find human skeletons, so perhaps it is apt that this book is supposedly bound in human skin. The copy which was put up for sale includes several inscriptions about the binding. One reads, “Dear John – What a tribute to the morbid death-loving Poe to find the ‘Gold Bug’ in human skin.” The leather is decorated with a sickle, a shovel, and the gold bug itself descending into a skull.
It sold for $1020.
4 The Horwood Book
John Horwood was just 18 years old when he was executed in 1821 in a Bristol prison. He was convicted of the murder of a woman he was obsessed with. When Eliza Balsum rejected him, Horwood threatened to kill her. When he spotted her in the street, he threw a stone at her, which struck her just below the eye—she died of her injuries.
At this time, human bodies for dissection by doctors mainly came from convicted criminals. Dissection was just another punishment to be inflicted on felons. Horwood was dissected by Dr. Richard Smith, who had also treated Eliza for her wounds. He took notes on all the details of the case and bound them together in a book that he bound in Horwood’s own skin. The front of the book is stamped with “Cutis Vera Johannis Horwood”—”the actual skin of John Horwood”—in gold letters.
Using these notes about the case, some have concluded that Horwood was wrongly convicted of the murder, which led to his execution. Such hindsight was not, however, enough to save his skin.
3 Garnet Book
The Gunpowder Plot is one of the most famous murder attempts in British history. A group of Catholics plotted to blow up Parliament during the king’s speech to wipe out much of the governing class. They were discovered, and many of the conspirators suffered horrible deaths. One man who was not a plotter, but did know of the plot, was Father Henry Garnet—a Jesuit priest. He had heard the confessions of the plotters but did not reveal their plan because of the secrecy of confession. For his crime, he was hung, drawn, and quartered.
In 2007, a book about Garnet’s crime written in 1606 came up for auction. Titled A True and Perfect Relation of the Whole Proceedings Against the Late Most Barbarous Traitors, Garnet a Jesuit and His Confederates, it was not only said to be bound in the priest’s skin but to bear an image of his face on the front.
Whether it was Garnet’s skin or not could not be confirmed. It sold for £5400.
2 The Red Barn Murder
When William Corder shot his lover Maria Marten in 1827, it created an uproar and a public craze for information about the case. Marten had already had a child with Corder’s older brother, but the two planned to elope together after having a child of their own. Corder convinced Marten to come with him to a red barn nearby where they could hide until they ran away. She was never seen alive again.
Marten’s stepmother had dreams of Maria in a red barn and convinced her husband to dig there—and Maria’s body was found. Corder was found, arrested, and put on trial for her murder. Corder was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged before his body was dissected.
Death masks of the murderer were taken, but so were his scalp and enough skin to bind a book relating the details of the case. This can still be seen in a local museum. His skeleton was reassembled and displayed by the Royal College of Physicians until 2004 when it was cremated.
1 Burke’s Notebook
As we have seen, there was a need for bodies to be used in dissection by doctors in the 19th century. Most of their cadavers came from executed criminals, but sometimes there were just not enough bodies to go around. That was where the Resurrection Men came in. They supplied medical schools with corpses by digging up the recently deceased. Sometimes they cut out the middle man and made the dead bodies themselves—they turned to murder.
William Burke and William Hare committed around 16 murders to provide Edinburgh University medical school with cadavers. Hare gave evidence against Burke and was allowed to go free. Burke was sentenced to death, with the judge adding, “Your body should be publicly dissected and anatomized. And I trust, that if it is ever customary to preserve skeletons, yours will be preserved, in order that posterity may keep in remembrance your atrocious crimes.”
Burke’s body was duly dissected, and his skin was removed and turned into leather. From this was bound a little notebook with fine gilded tooling and the words “Burke’s Skin Pocket Book” on the front. It even came with a pencil inside to make notes with.