Let's Talk About Binding Books with Human Skin
For centuries, the practice of making books out of human skin was disturbingly common.
Last June, Harvard University conclusively confirmed the existence of a book bound in human skin (also known as anthropodermic bibliopegy) as part of their collection at Houghton Library. The book is a 19th-century copy of Arsène Houssaye's Des destinées de l'ame. Houssaye provided the manuscript to his friend Dr. Ludovic Bouland, a well-known physician, and, according to the Houghton Library blog, "Bouland bound the book with skin from the unclaimed body of a female mental patient who had died of a stroke." The 19th century, everyone!
The book contains a note in French by Bouland that says, "This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance." There were two other books at different Harvard libraries that were thought for a long time to also be bound in human skin, but tests revealed the material to be sheepskin, making Des destinées de l'ame the only confirmed such book at Harvard.
Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris is a medical historian who is currently a Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Queen Mary University of London. She is the author and creator of the Chirurgeon's Apprentice website and the YouTube series Under the Knife. Anthropodermic bibliopegy is one of her research interests, and the Wellcome Trust's library is home to another book bound in human skin by Dr. Bouland that she examined in the course of her work. I reached out to Dr. Fitzharris to find out more on the subject.
VICE: Why would anyone ever bind a book in human skin?
Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: It's really done for three reasons as far as I can tell. The first reason is punishment, and that's something that we can all understand to some extent. There's plenty of examples of this happening. There's a great example of this in Surgeons' Hall in Edinburgh: the Burke pocketbook. Burke and Hare were two serial killers in the early 19th century. They killed 17 people. Essentially they were posing as body snatchers, but actually they were just killing everybody and selling the bodies to anatomists for dissection. So they're caught, and Hare turns King's evidence and Burke goes down for the crime. As added punishment, he is publicly dissected.
This was really common because there was something called the Murder Act in place at the time which meant that if you murdered someone and you were executed for it, you were also dissected publicly.
And then what?
They also took his skin and created all of these objects from it. One of the objects is a pocketbook, which is essentially a wallet. I held this object up in Edinburgh. Burke is such a part of medical history, and he's so much a part of my research, so it's kind of weird to think that I might have been touching his arm at one point – or wherever this skin was taken from.
The second reason [books were bound with human skin] is just collector's items. Whatever you collect, everybody kinda wants to have that really strange object. And so there were people who collected books bound in human skin. Sometimes they collected books bound in tattooed skin because they made particularly beautiful covers. And in fact there's a lot of preserved tattoos in anatomical collections, and sometimes they're used for these bound books.
There's a really good example in the Wellcome Collection here in London. I've held this book, it's really strange. It's a book on female virginity and reproductive organs, and it's bound in the skin of an unknown woman – a patient who died in this doctor's care. I guess it's so strange to me because it's kind of a fetish item. It's a book written by men, about women, about very intimate parts of women. It's bound in the skin of a woman. We don't know her name; we don't know anything about her. And we know that the man who bound this book, this French anatomist, really coveted it. He would carry it around, he would say it's very precious, he would tell people about how it was bound. So it was definitely sort of a collector's item at that point.
The third historical reason why it was done was for memorialisation. So there's a famous book in Boston that is bound in the skin of a 19th century highwayman. Again, that seems really odd to us.
[Note: A scanned copy in high resolution is available at the site of the Boston Athenaeum library where it is housed. A good summary on this book's background can be found from Dr. Fitzharris's site.]
How willing were the participants? Sounds like not very.
The one thing I would stress, because I am a historian, is that concepts of consent don't really start to evolve until the 20th century. We can't really judge the past when these things were happening. There was consent in the memorialization examples for instance; clearly no consent when it was used as a punishment, which was part of the thing. I mean, I come across all kinds of horrible stories, especially letters of people who are condemned to die, and they are writing their families begging them to come to their execution so that they can claim the body so the bodies don't fall into the hands of the surgeons who will then dissect them.
When did anthropodermic bibliopegy stop being practiced?
It definitely goes into the late 19th century. One of the reasons was just views on capital punishment. Eventually the Murder Act is overturned, so that means that murderers aren't dissected. Suddenly the concept of donating one's body comes in. And since I would say a lot of these skin books are usually criminals and their skin is used to bind books about their crimes, I think that leads to a decline in it. There's probably a lot of different reasons. But I definitely see skin books as part of the history of crime and punishment.
You mentioned that you've held them. Do these book covers look or feel different from more traditional forms of leather?
It looks very much like leather. It doesn't smell funny, it doesn't look different than any kind of leather book. But on it, it says in gold lettering, "Burke's skin pocket book" and then the execution date. And it has been tested. It's definitely human skin.
Although I think people say that the book in Harvard looks "spotted," like the skin of a banana, which is kinda gross when you think about it. I had taken video of the one at the Wellcome collection. We got in so close with the camera that you could actually see a wrinkle in the skin. Again, this could happen with animal hide but there's something really horrible about it when it's human skin, and you think of it coming off some woman and we don't even know her name. So I think the imagination plays a role, but you can definitely see up close with the camera some identifying marks that it's human. But other than that I think it's really hard to tell without scientific testing.
Seeing as how it's hard to tell the genuine object without rigorous testing, have there been fakes that people fell for?
There's a really good example at the Wellcome Collection, and it's a black leather notebook. The cover is purported to be – and this is a direct quote within the book – "made of Tanned Skin from the Negro whose Execution caused the War of Independence." Presumably, this was [alleged] to be the skin of a man named Crispus Attucks who was the first casualty of the Boston Massacre. And he becomes an American martyr who gets held up as a symbol of American independence. I think the book was tested in the 1990s by the Wellcome and it turned out not to be skin. But what I find really interesting is that it was held up – it was important at the time – that this was kind of like a relic, and that people believed it was the skin of this first victim, and it became a symbol of American independence. So to me, it's still a fascinating object even though it didn't turn out to be human skin.
How might one go about making leather either from their own skin or perhaps from that of a willing donor? Is being dead a requirement for human skin to be used for bookbinding?
I definitely think you'd have to be dead. There's instances of people being flayed alive, although you do die at some point from blood loss. Tanners and people who worked in those kinds of crafts, they rarely leave written records behind. So it's difficult to know how these things were done. I would imagine it wasn't that different from working with any animal hide, except for the fact that the skin is a lot thinner, so you can't stretch it as well. There's one book where they wanted to bind it in human skin, but they didn't have enough so they had to split the skin. But again, we don't have any modern examples of tanners working with human skin, and we don't have written records of this process. So we can only assume it must have been treated rather similarly.
Are there people who make things out of human skin today?
I did come across a website here in the UK that claims that they make all kinds of things out of human skin, like belts and wallets... just weird.
Yeah, I found articles about it but the links are all down.
There's also a website for a company that makes [things out of] synthetic skin, like purses and stuff out of it. So is there still an interest? If we were binding books in human skin, would we still be buying them or seeking them out? I don't know. But there's definitely a heightened macabre interest in these objects. And the fact that this company exists and actually makes synthetic skin purses is sort of a testament to that.
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