As genealogists we often spend time in libraries, looking through manuscripts and old books for clues to our family and the places where they lived. These materials can include very old books, bound by hand. In addition to leather-bound books, some are bound in sheepskin or pigskin. But occasionally some were covered in something very different. Anthropodermic bibliopegy refers to the practice of binding books with human skin.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the practice became known among physicians, who used human skin to bind anatomy books. The skin was usually taken from cadavers, but was sometimes taken from criminals. One common form was to take the skin of criminals who were sentenced to death and use it to bind the records of the criminal’s trial. This was seen as a punishment that would last even after death.
The Boston Athenaeum has a text in its collection titled Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est. Published in 1837, it contains the memoirs of James Allen, a notorious highwayman and bank robber. He once declared himself to be the “master of his own skin,” and the book was actually bound in his skin.
The Harvard University Libraries hold at least two books bound in human skin. A third book, oringinally thought to be bound in human skin, has since been proven to be bound in sheepskin. One of these books is Des Destinées de L’Âme by Arsène Houssaye, published in the 1880s. He gave the book to a physician friend, Ludovic Bouland. Bouland loved books, and had Houssaye’s treatise on the soul and life after death and had it rebound. He used skin from the body of a deceased mental patient whose family never claimed her body. Bouland added the following note:
“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. . .”
The tanning process used on the skin to preserve it and make it fit for binding damages the skin to the point that DNA is not recoverable, so it is not possible to trace the origins of the “donors.” By the end of the Victorian era the practice fell out of use because it was so morbid.
You can read more stories online in Anthropodermic Bibliopegy, or The Truth About Books Bound in Human Skin, A Morbid Secret Lies Hidden Within the Beautiful Walls of the Boston Athenaeum, and Flesh-Crawling Page-Turners: The Books Bound in Human Skin.
And remember, the next time you are in a library and using a very old book, the binding may not be what you think it is.