One of my MA thesis committee members posted an article to Facebook today that was right up my alley. It’s about the books in Harvard’s collection that are bound with human skin. Now, I like dark, but this is full on macabre. But it’s also fascinating!
There’s not really a lot to say here. The practice of using human leather to bind books, known as anthropodermic bibliopegy, wasn’t common, but it also wasn’t uncommon. It was mostly practiced in the 16th and 17th centuries, but the earliest example is a 13th century French Bible and there are examples well into the 19th century. Human skin was used to bind a wide array of books, including prayer books, which I find funnier than I probably should, and anatomy texts, including one housed at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, which includes the inscription, “The leather with which this book is bound is human skin, from a soldier who died during the great Southern Rebellion.”
A number of the more interesting examples include:
– Justine et Juliette by the Marquis de Sade, copies of which were bound using skin from female breasts sent from medical interns (who apparently later lost their internships).*
– The memoirs of notorious highwayman James Allen, Narrative of the Life of James Allen, 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, who requested that after his execution, a copy of his memoir be bound in his own skin and presented to John Fenno, Jr. whom he shot during a robbery after the latter stood up to him. The cover of the Fenno book itself bears the words, Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est, which translates to “this book by [Allen] is bound in his own skin.”
– A copy of Éloge du sein des femmes by the French satirist, Claude-François-Xavier Mercier was reportedly bound in human skin for a private collector and included an intact nipple on the cover.**
– A copy of Camille Flammarion’s astronomy text, Terres du ciel,*** which was bound using a strip of skin from between the shoulders of a young woman, apocryphally called a countess, who admired Flammarion’s work and requested that he bind something after her death from tuberculosis.****
– A copy of the 17th century Spanish canon law text, Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias Hispaniae, which includes the inscription, “The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my deare friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Btesa 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.”
– A copy of A True and Perfect Relation of the Whole Proceedings Against the Late Most Barbarous Traitors, Garnet, a Jesuit and his Confederates was bound in the skin of Father Henry Garnet, who was a Jesuit priest who, while not an active participant, heard confessions of conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Reports are that his face was used to bind the cover. This book was auctioned off to a private collector, for $11,000, in 2007.****** However (and this is a big however), this breakdown by a man who knows old books is a good examination of how the myth sounds better than the reality. This article points out all the failings with the supposition that the book is bound using Garnet’s skin at all, nevermind his facial skin.
So…yeah. Apparently, human leather has a distinct waxy smell, compared with other leathers, and a coarser grain.
*see the bottom of page 98 of this article from the NIH entitled “Tanned Human Skin.”
**see the bottom of page 99 of “Tanned Human Skin.”
***If you think you’re seeing an awful lot of French titles, it’s because you are.
****see page 100 of “Tanned Human Skin,” which includes a description of the events from Flammarion himself.