April 2, 2014
Books bound in human skin are more common than you think
by Julia Fleischaker
You can get your books in hardcover, in paperback, paper-over-board, or…human skin? Harvard librarians have found three books in their collections bound in human flesh. One of the volumes is described by the Harvard Crimson as “delicate, stiff, and with wrinkled edges” and having the color of “an old banana.”
The skin is not covered in hair or marked by tattoos—except for a “Harvard Law Library” branding on its spine. Nothing about it shouts “human flesh” to the untrained eye.
The book’s 794th and final page includes an inscription in purple cursive: “the bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Mbesa 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.”
How can one tell, aside from an inscription like the one above, whether a book is bound in human hide as opposed to plain ol’ leather (you know, cow or pig hide)? If you must know, according to i09, “human leather has a different pore size and shape than pig or calf skin along with a bizarre waxy smell, allowing fraudulent books to be identified.”
It sounds creepy, but the practice of binding books with human flesh, known as anthropodermic bibliopegy, was fairly common through the 17th and 18th centuries. David Ferris, curator of Harvard’s Langdell Law Library told the Crimson, “While it strikes us as macabre, it is honoring and memorializing this man.” From the Chirurgeon’s Apprentice (a blog about 17th century surgeons that has stories like “The Syphilitic Whores of Georgian London“, “Piss Prophets and the Wheel of Urine“, and “The Battle of the Tooth Worm“):
Some people willingly donated their skins for the purpose of binding narratives about their lives after death. James Allen, alias George Walton, was one such person. Allen, a ‘Jamaican mulatto’, was a 19th-century highwayman. One day, he assaulted John A. Fenno on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Fenno bravely resisted the robbery, even sustaining a gunshot wound in the process. He later became instrumental in the apprehension of his attacker. On his deathbed, Allen requested that his skin be used to bind a book about his crimes, and for this to be presented to Fenno as a ‘token of his esteem’. 
Of course, not all books bound in human flesh were done so for the purpose of honouring the donor’s life. Some were done for pragmatic reasons, as in the case of medical texts which were bound using skin from dissected cadavers. There were also those which were covered in the skins of executed criminals, as we have seen with the pocketbook fastened from a piece of William Burke’s flesh. Far from serving as mementos or keepsakes, these items became objects of curiosity for the morbidly inclined.
If you’re interested in reading more, i09 has done a few stories, and because the internet has a Top 10 list for everything, here is a list of the Top 10 Books Wrapped in Human Skin. It all gives a whole new meaning to finishing up one’s “man-uscript.” (Sorry.)
Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.