By Storm Stoker, Technical Services Support Specialist
On a dark and chilly December evening in Edinburgh, Scotland, I visited the Surgeons’ Hall Museums and found it deserted. I was looking in a glass case that held a pocketbook that stated it was “bound with William Burke’s skin.” William Burke and William Hare were a couple of entrepreneurial resurrection men in Victorian Edinburgh. They decided grave robbing to sell bodies to doctors was too much work, simply murdering someone and selling their corpse saved them all that digging. It is estimated they killed at least 16 people before they were caught. Hare turned state’s evidence on Burke who was hanged (1/28/1829) in front of a huge crowd of 25,000, his corpse was then publicly dissected and his skeleton displayed at the Anatomical Museum of Edinburgh Medical School where, you can still visit it today. His skin apparently was used to bind this gruesome souvenir. This strange visit to the museum is what led me to do more research on the topic. Why was this done and was this common?
According to some scholars, the earliest known anthropodermic book was a French Bible from the 13th century but most proven examples are from the late 16th through the 18th century. But WHY would anyone do such a macabre thing?
There were several reasons:
- For punishment, many skin books are bound in the skin of executed criminals. Sometimes their confessions would be bound with their skin. Father Henry Garnet heard the confessions of many involved in the Gunpowder Plot to blow up the houses of Parliament (the 1605 Gunpowder Plot with Guy Fawkes) and although he wasn’t involved in the plot, because he heard the confessions and didn’t do anything he was hung, drawn, quartered and his skin removed for binding the book A True and Perfect Relation, the book has the impression of Garnet’s face on the front cover. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but many of these book covers have been judged!
- Collectors wanted something unusual to impress friends – in the 18th & 19th century these would be referred to as curios for their collection. They especially liked to collect books that had been bound with tattooed skin. The Wellcome Library in London has a book which was bound and signed by Dr. Ludovic Bouland. As a medical student he decided to bind a book using the skin of a female patient whose body went unclaimed. It has gilt paneled spine, gilt borders, cover ornamentation and fillets.
- People bound books in human skin to memorialize the dead. Some folks gave consent to have their skin used for this purpose. Keep in mind though, medical consent as we know it today is a relatively modern concept. James Allen aka George Walton was a highwayman or thief. He was so impressed with one man he robbed, but who fought him bravely that he wanted to show penance, so he asked that two copies of the memoir he wrote in prison be bound with his skin after his death. One copy was for his doctor the other was to be presented to the only man who ever stood up to him, John Fenno, Jr. The Highwayman Narrative is available for viewing at the Boston Athenaeum. The cover reads “Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est:” “This book was bound in Walton’s skin.”
- Medical books were also bound in cadaver skin as a way of saying thank you from the doctors to their patients for helping them learn from them.
There are so many book inscriptions claiming to be bound in human skin, but many turn out to be false.
The Anthropodermic Book Project (ABP) is a project that hopes to create a census of all the anthropodermic bibliopegy and test them to confirm that they are in fact bound in human skin. Esteemed scientist from the fields of forensic anthropology, medical librarianship, and chemistry are working to verify whether books claiming to be bound in human skin actually are. So far their tally runs as follows:
- 49 books have been rumored to be covered in human skin;
- 32 of these have been tested;
- 18 books have been confirmed to be bound in human skin; and
- 14 have been proved to be covered in leather from pigs, cows or sheep, in some cases it may be that they were formerly bound in human skin and a new owner decided to have it rebound.
The test ABP uses is called Peptide Mass Fingerprinting or PMF they take a tiny sample from the book cover and they chemically test the sample to see if it is human skin or something else. They also study the follicle pattern of the leather and the provenance, or history of the ownership of the book to determine if the book is what it claims to be.
There are many libraries that have anthropodermic bibliopegy, in addition to those mentioned above. For a current full list of confirmed skin books click here.
Finally, what are the ethics around keeping these books in a library or museum? Are these books considered human remains, if so how should the remains be dealt with? Do modern medical guidelines apply? While the Society of American Archivists and other professional associations have no approved policies for dealing with human remains of this type, the library field is committed to working on best practices for handling sensitive materials like anthropodermic books. No one has all the answers yet, it will likely be an evolving issue for many years to come.
I totally understand if some of you want to stick with your e-readers!
Resources and Further Reading
Anthropodermic Bibliopegy. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropodermic_bibliopegy
Association of College and Research Librarians. “Code of Ethics for Special Collections Librarians,” RBMS—Rare Books & Manuscripts Section, October 2003, available online at http://rbms.info/standards/code_of_ethics/
Davis, Simon. Let’s Talk About Binding Books with Human Skin. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/exm3bk/binding-books-with-human-skin-135
Fleischaker, Julia. Books Bound in Human Skin Are More Common Than You Think.” Mobylives. https://www.mhpbooks.com/books-bound-in-human-skin-are-more-common-than-you-think/
Gordon, Jacob. “In the Flesh? Anthropodermic Bibliopegy Verification and Its Implications.” RBM, https://rbm.acrl.org/index.php/rbm/article/view/9664
Schuessler, Jennifer. Harvard Confirms Book Is Bound in Human Skin. https://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/06/05/harvard-confirms-book-is-bound-in-human-skin/
Society of American Archivists “Code of Ethics for Archivists,” SAA Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics, (revised 2012), available online at http://www2.archivists.org/statements/saa-core-values-statement-and-code-of-ethics#code_of_ethics
Thuras, Dylan. Boston Athenaeum Skin Book. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/boston-athenaeum-skin-book