What is Anthropodermic Bibliopegy?
Anthropodermic bibliopegy involves the practice of binding books with human skin. This unique craft has been practiced all throughout history, but was especially popular during the nineteenth century (“The Macabre world”). Quite a few medical books exist that are bound in human skin. This makes sense since doctors would have had regular access to skin from deceased patients. These human skin books typically would have been constructed for three main reasons, as a memorial piece, for a morbid collector, or as a punishment for a criminal. Libraries across the world have discovered these rare books within their stacks. Some even allow the public to view them in person if they are feeling daring.
Whose Skin is it Anyway?
Unfortunately, most of these books were made with the skin of people who were unable to consent. Skin was usually harvested from individuals after they died, typically in a hospital setting. It also wasn’t uncommon for body parts of executed criminals to flip a profit. In fact, small personal pocketbooks still exist made from the skin of condemned criminals (“The Macabre world”). Since so many of these books were created without the consent of the individual whose skin has been used as the binding, a controversy does exist surrounding keeping and displaying such objects. Organizations struggle over what ought to be done with the artifacts. Should they be sent back to their country of origin? If the individual linked to the item is known, should the book be sent to any living relatives? The most ethical solution remains unclear.
James Allen’s Famous Memoir:
Speaking of criminals, let’s look at a particularly interesting case study. James Allen, also known as George Walton, was a notorious criminal residing in the United States and his career in crime started at the age of fifteen. A copy of his personal memoir and confessional is currently housed at the Boston Athenaeum. You have to know where this is going…and the book itself is bound in his own skin. The cover reads, “Hic Liber Waltonis cute Compactus Est,” translating to, “This book was bound in Walton’s skin” (Fantegrossi). James came down with Tuberculosis while in state prison in Charleston, MA and gave his memoir to the Warden who then transcribed it (Fantegrossi). He requested that enough skin be taken from his back to bind two copies of the book. One was given to his doctor and the other to one of his victims. Allen described the man as, “…the only man who ever stood up to him” (Fantegrissi). The skin was removed, taken to a local tannery and then given over to a bookbinder. The book is titled, Narrative of the Life of James Allen, and it is available to view with an appointment.
I hope all of my followers stay safe out there during this Halloween season!
Until Next Time
- “Anthropodermic Bibliopegy: Books bound in human skin.” Biblio. 2019. Accessed 18 October, 2021. biblio.com/blog/2019/10/anthropodermic-bibliopegy-books-bound-in-human-skin/#.
- Fantegrossi, Dina. “The Strange Story of the Boston Athenaeum Skin Book.” Chowsaheadz. 19 September, 2018. Accessed 18 October, 2021. chowdaheadz.com/blogs/news/the-strange-story-of-the-boston-athenaeum-skin-book.
- “The macabre world of books bound in human skin.” BBC. 20 June, 2014. Accessed 18 October, 2021. bbc.com/news/magazine-27903742.