Skin Tome – Bound in Human Skin

Using human skin for objects may seem like something out of a serial killer story ala Ed Gein, but some Edinburgh dwellers, or those of us who are True Crime inclined, may know of a small pocketbook held in a museum in the city. This pocketbook is made of the skin of infamous murderer William Burke (of the notorious Burke and Hare) and is held at Surgeons’ Hall Museum.

After Burke was hanged for his crimes in 1829, his preserved skeleton made its way to the Anatomical Museum at the University of Edinburgh, while his death mask and this pocketbook are now on display at Surgeons Hall Museum.

Image: William Burke’s death mask and a pocketbook made from his skin, exhibited at Surgeon’s Hall Museum, Edinburgh. Photo credit: Kim Traynor, Wikimedia Commons

Knowing the existence of this got me thinking – what other books bound with human skin are around the world? Are there some from the skin of other criminals? And why were these made? Macabre, you may be thinking, but it is not completely uncommon.

The name given to this binding practice is Anthropodermic bibliopegy.

Burke’s body, as noted by Surgeons Hall Museum in the image above, was publicly dissected by anatomist Alexander Monro tertius, his skin then being tanned before being bound into the pocketbook above. Tanning the skin allowed it to become a more stable, leather like structure, similar to the leather bindings using sheep, calf or pig skin.

It seems this practice has happened with other criminals. In 1828, only a year prior to Burke’s execution, William Corden was hanged for the murder of his wife in the English town of Bury St Edmunds. Corden’s skin was allegedly used to bind a book that told an account of this murder at the Red Barn.

At the Boston Athenaeum in Boston, Massachusetts, there is a book held of another criminal, a James Allen. It is alleged that James Allen himself, a highwayman who was in and out of jail during the early 19th Century, made the request for his memoirs to be bound in his own skin.

Other examples of books bound in human skin can be found in academic libraries and museums across the world.

As shared across news sites back in 2014, Harvard University library (the Houghton Library) holds within its collections a copy of Des destinees de l’ame (or Destinies of the Soul) bound in human skin. This book was also produced during the 19th Century but, according to a Houghton Library blog post, bound of the skin of an unknown and unclaimed patient who died in hospital – bound with her skin unbeknownst to her.

Further examples can be found in the John Hay Library at Brown University. Written by Andreas Vesalius and originally published in 1543, the anatomy books De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, (or On the Fabric of the Human Body), were a major piece of work, moving away from the many years of Galen inspired beliefs. For those interested, there is an online digitised version. A copy of this was bound in human skin and is held at John Hay Library today.

Image: Possible human skin bound book held at Smithsonian Libraries. Bound in 1863 by Josse Schavye. The same binder of the genuine anthropodermic Vesalius’ Fabrica at Brown University mentioned above, the binder is said to have bound at least four other anthropodermic books.
Photo credit: Josse Schavye / Public domain

John Hay Library also holds three other volumes thought to be bound by the skin of humans, including two copies of Hans Holbein the Younger’s Dance of Death (extremely popular works of woodcut illustrations of Death showing its incessant presence). With the theme and title of this book, it is not entirely a surprise that copies were made bound in human skin. Six known copies were made, two of which are held at John Hay.

Above Image: Dance of Death:  The Bishop, c. 1526. Hans Holbein (German, 1497/98-1543). Woodcut
Photo credit:  The Cleveland Museum of Art, Dudley P. Allen Fund 1929.150, CC0

The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia (as an aside, my dream to visit), holds some books thought to be bound by anthropodermic bibliopegy means. The Dr John Stockton Hough collection includes those bound in the skin of women, the books being based on women’s medicine – how apt. One, a copy of Speculations on the mode and appearances of impregnation in the human female…, is bound with skin taken from the thigh of an immigrant called Mary Lynch, after her death in Philadelphia in 1869. Her skin was tanned and kept in a chamberpot for several years before being used by Houghton to bind the book. The Mütter Museum has an excellent resource allowing you to explore this object in their collections.

It seems there are more than a few different books made using the practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy. Mostly made in the 19th century, but from the skin of a range of people. Criminals, unknown patients, known patients. Some known before death, most unknown and decided on after their demise. Some used to bind previous books, with themes suiting the idea of anthropodermic bindings. Permission to make something seen as quite gruesome would be very different today!

For those of us who would like to find out more about any anthropodermic books, a project team was set up in the US to find out how many there may be, and their website (last updated in 2019) states confirmation of 18 books made of human skin, with more to be tested  – The Anthropodermic Book Project

Written by Megan Rosenbloom, a member of the anthropodermic project team, a new book is due to be released in October/November 2020 – Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin, which I plan to order!

N.B. Surgeons Hall Museum and the Anatomical Museum are two of my favourite places to visit in my home city, so would highly recommend for anyone who has not been!

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