10 Books Bound in Human Skin

There are few things more evocative for book lovers than an old room filled with leather-bound tomes. Although I guess it depends where the leather came from. Snake, fish and elephant skin have been used on occasion to create the rich leather covers of books, but also human skin. Known as anthropodermic bibliopegy, luckily it’s rare for books to be made from human skin, but scientific analyzes have confirmed examples.

Here are ten books bound in human skin that you might not want on your shelves.

Related: 10 absolutely bizarre books and their stories

10 the bandit

The Boston Athenaeum is a private library founded in 1807. Among its many old books is one entitled, in its entirety, Narrative of the life of James Allen, aka George Walton, aka Jonas Pierce, aka James H. York, aka Burley Grove, The Highwayman. Being his deathbed confession, to the warden of the Massachusetts State Prison. At first it looks like any other 19th century work bound in fine white leather. But on its cover, there is a Latin inscription that reads: “This book is bound in Walton’s skin.”

The Walton in question was the man who wrote the book: George Walton, who made his ill-gotten money through robberies and highway robberies. However, he was kind of an honest thief in the sense that he didn’t like to take a person’s life, unless he had to. One of those he tried to rob, John Fenno, fought back. This manly endurance so impressed Walton that when he was dying of a lung disease in prison, he ordered a copy of his confession to be bound in his skin and presented to Fenno.[1]

9 The dance of death

Perhaps not surprisingly, many books bound in human skin deal with macabre subjects. Humans have long been interested in the subject of death, so there are plenty of texts that could be garnished with a bit of human flesh.

Hans Holbein was the great court artist of Henry VIII. In addition to large and intimate portraits, he was also a skilled illustrator. In the 1520s, he created images related 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 tallest monarch is mortal.

It was a copy of this book that was bound in “white human skin”. Today it is in the Brown University Library Stores, not on public display. File details describe it as decorated with arrows, knuckles, and skulls. Analysis of the proteins in the hide confirms that he is human, but it is unknown who gave the hide from him for the book.[2]

8 the land of the sky

Camille Flammarion was a famous French astronomer of the early 20th century. But her interests also included 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 could wipe out all life on our planet. However, he was not without his admirers, 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 he became deathly ill with tuberculosis, she made a request to her doctor. They told her to take a piece of skin from his back, make it into leather, and give it to Flammarion to use 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 cover of his book that reads: “Pious anonymous wish fulfillment. Binding in human skin (woman) 1882.”[3]

7 the destinations of the soul

What could be more appropriate for a book dealing with the disembodied human soul than a binding made from the matter of a material human body? Destinées de l’ame (the destinations of the soul) was written by the French author Arsène Houssaye, and it was one of his medical friends, Dr. Ludovic Bouland, who decided that he needed a human cover.

Bouland used a copy given to him by the author and gave him its new binding. A letter inside Bouland’s book reveals his choices in doing so. “This book is bound in parchment of human skin on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. When looking carefully, the pores of the skin are easily distinguished. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human cover: I was left with this piece of human skin taken from a woman’s back. He also notes how this human leather looks different from another example he had in his library.

Today the book is in the collection of Harvard University. Another book in the Harvard collection bears an inscription that reads: “The writing of this book is all that remains of my dear friend Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by Wavuma on August 4, 1632. King Mbesa gave me the book, being one of poor Jonas’s main possessions, along with a large part of his skin to read it. Rest in peace.” Other library books, also believed to be bound in human skin, were tried on and revealed to be sheepskin, causing the destinations the only one of its kind at Harvard.[4]

6 medical texts

In the Philadelphia College of Physicians, there are three books that were republished in the 19th century by Dr. John Stockton Hough. Hough, just 23 years old, made a remarkable discovery in 1869 when he discovered that a woman named Mary Lynch had not died of tuberculosis as suspected, but of Tychinosis: her flesh was riddled with parasitic worms. To celebrate her successful autopsy, he cut a piece of skin from her thigh and turned it into leather. It seems unlikely that Lynch gave her consent to this.

The skin that Hough used was placed in a chamber pot for several months to be made into leather. Once she had the leather, she waited 20 years to wear it. The three texts that she chose to bind dealt with female anatomy, fertilization, and childbirth. Mary Lynch’s skin was used to cover the spines of the texts, and Hough made a note in each book to make sure future readers knew it was human skin they were holding.

Hough was not only interested in the skin that he had collected himself. He also owned another human-skin-bound book which he noted was made of “skin from around the wrist of a man who died in the [Philadelphia] Hospital 1869: Tanned by JSH 1869. This piece of leather was never boiled or cured.”[5]

5 “The Golden Bug”

Edgar Allan Poe was one of the masters of the haunting and strange tales of the 19th century. If the 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 search for hidden pirate treasure. Treasure hunters find human skeletons, so perhaps it’s only fitting that this book is supposedly bound in human skin. The copy that was put up for sale includes several inscriptions on the binding. One reads: “Dear John: what a tribute to the morbid death-loving Poe to find the ‘golden beetle’ on human skin.” The leather is decorated with a sickle, a shovel, and the golden insect that descends to become a skull.

It sold for $1020.[6]

4 Horwood’s 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 with whom he was obsessed. When Eliza Balsum refused him, Horwood threatened to kill her. When he saw her in the street, he threw a rock at her which hit her just below her eye and she died from her injuries.

At the time, the human bodies for dissection by doctors came mainly from convicted felons. Dissection was just another punishment inflicted on criminals. Horwood was dissected by Dr. Richard Smith, who had also treated Eliza for her injuries. He took notes on all the details of the case and assembled them into a book which he bound in Horwood’s own skin. The front of the book is stamped with “Cutis Vera Johannis Horwood”, “the real skin of John Horwood”, in gold lettering.

Using these case notes, some have concluded that Horwood was wrongly convicted of the murder, leading to his execution. However, that hindsight was not enough to save his skin.[7]

3 Garnet Book

The Gunpowder Plot is one of the most famous assassination attempts in British history. A group of Catholics planned to blow up Parliament during the King’s speech to wipe out much of the ruling class. They were discovered and many of the conspirators died horrible deaths. One man who was not a conspirator, but who knew of the plot, was Father Henry Garnet, a Jesuit priest. He had heard the confessions of the conspirators but did not reveal his plan due to the secrecy of the confession. For his crime, he was hanged, dragged, and quartered.

In 2007, a book about Garnet’s crime written in 1606 was put up for auction. Noble A true and perfect account of the whole procedure against the last most barbarous traitors, Garnet a Jesuit and his was said not only to be draped in the priest’s skin, but to have an image of his face on the front.

Couldn’t confirm if it was Garnet’s skin or not. It sold for £5,400.[8]

2 The Red Barn Murder

When William Corder shot his mistress Maria Marten in 1827, he created an uproar and public frenzy 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 accompany him to a nearby red barn where they could hide until they escaped. She was never seen alive again.

Marten’s stepmother dreamed of Maria in a red barn and convinced her husband to dig there, and Maria’s body was found. Corder was found, arrested, and tried for her murder. Corder was found guilty and sentenced to hang before her body was stuffed.

The murderer’s death masks were taken, but also his scalp and enough skin to bind a book recounting 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 he was cremated.[9]

1 Burke’s Notebook

As we have seen, in the 19th century there was a need for doctors to use bodies for dissection. Most of their corpses came from executed criminals, but sometimes there simply weren’t enough bodies to go around. That was where the Resurrection Men came in. They provided cadavers to medical schools by digging up the recently deceased. Sometimes they cut out the middleman and fabricated the corpses themselves: they turned into murder.

William Burke and William Hare committed around 16 murders to provide corpses for the University of Edinburgh medical school. Hare testified against Burke and was allowed to go free. Burke was sentenced to death, with the judge adding: “His body is to be publicly dissected and anatomized. And I am confident that if it is ever customary to keep skeletons, yours will be preserved, so that posterity may remember your heinous crimes.”

Burke’s body was duly stuffed, and his skin was removed and turned into leather. From this was bound a small notebook with fine gilt engraving and the words “Burke’s Leather Pocket Book” on the front. He even came with a pencil inside to make notes.[10]

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