Currently reading : Anthropodermic Bibliopegy
Anthropodermic bibliopegy, or the practice of binding books with human skin, has been around since the 16th Century. The earliest known example is a 13th century French bible; however, the practice seems to have reached a heyday in the 1800s, when medical and anatomical texts were bound not infrequently by physicians in human flesh and criminals’ confessions were sometimes bound in the prisons’ unclaimed remains.
Many of these historical volumes have made it into the hands of prestigious American Universities: Harvard’s libraries contain at least two (not including the Practicarum quaestionum later found to be sheepskin), and Brown University and the UPenn’s libraries each have their own. Joseph Leidy (1823-1891), a paleontologist and professor of anatomy at UPenn and later Swarthmore, was known to have a collection of human-bound books from the skin of his patients. One of these volumes, An Elementary Treatise on Human Anatomy, was bound in the flesh of a Civil War soldier, for which Leidy was likely a military physician. The history of UPenn’s medical texts and anthropodermic bibliopegy was discussed in a 2006 article in the Daily Pennsylvanian, which elucidated the strong ties of the university with this practice, claiming that the university operated a successful medical school during a heyday of human book binding, and that skins were often obtained and tanned at the Philadelphia General Hospital.
Another volume, currently housed in the Boston Athenaeum, is the deathbed confession of convict James Allen (alias George Walton, alias Jonas Pierce, alias James H. York, alias Burley Grove, the highwayman), told to a warden and ultimately bound in the flesh of the author. An even more sinister volume, with the words “EXECUTED 28 JAN 1829” stamped on the cover, is supposedly made of the skin from Edinburgh murderer William Burke, who, along with accomplice Williams Hare, drugged and killed 16 people in the 1820s to sell their bodies to an anatomist. (Hare confessed and testified against Burke, and Burke was executed after his confession.)
Although I sometimes feel that such objects can be over-sensationalized for their gruesomeness, I think there’s something quite interesting going on in each of these objects, besides just creepy intrigue. The notion of Allen’s skin-bound volume providing a second life for the author’s body and story or the seeming simplicity of a choice to bind a book about human anatomy in human anatomy both say something about the perceived interaction between material book, the words and story therein, and the contact between an object and a reader. As one incription, from Arsène Houssaye’s Des destinées de l’ame, bound in the flesh of a deceased female mental patient and housed at Harvard’s Houghton Library reads: “A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering.”*
* The rest of the inscription, translated from French (via the Harvard article), reads: “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. It is interesting to see the different aspects that change this skin according to the method of preparation to which it is subjected. Compare for example with the small volume I have in my library, Sever. Pinaeus de Virginitatis notiswhich is also bound in human skin but tanned with sumac.”