Harvard library’s books bound in human skin came to light in 2006, but interest in this macabre collection has returned over the past few days. Harvard is not the only library with such specimens. Examples of human-skin bound books can also be found in Brown University’s library, the Langdell Law Library, the Houghton Collection, and the Countway Library of Medicine, among other major libraries.
Harvard’s three books, one of Roman poetry, another on French philosophy, and the third on medieval law, date back to as early as 1605.
The history of this grisly craft, known as anthropodermic bibliopegy, goes back at least as far as the Middle Ages, when human skin parchments began to appear. A French Bible from the 13th century is one of the earliest examples. Some of the early books known to be bound in human skin are copies of the French Constitution, bound in the skin of members of the new republic’s opposition.
The practice was almost commonplace by the 19th century. The skin of criminals was used as binding for books that recorded their wrongdoings. And physicians sometimes used human skin to bind medical books, having found the material to be “relatively cheap, durable, and waterproof.” Speculation is that the physicians may have bound their books in human skin to honor the people whose bodies helped to further medical research.
The most famous of anthropodermic bindings is kept at the Boston Athenaeum. The book is The Highwayman, which is the story of the life of James Allen, alias George Walton. The book is a memoir, and Allen donated his own skin for the purpose of binding the book. He wanted the book, which documented his crimes, to be bound in his skin after his execution, and given to John Fenno, Jr., a man he attacked but who earned his respect for bravely standing up to him.
It is not possible to easily tell whether a leather-bound book is human skin or not. According to i09, human skin has pores with different size and shape than that of calf or pig skin, along with a strange waxy smell. But Sidney Verba, Harvard’s Director of University Libraries, says they would have no idea how many books bound in human skin might exist in their system without extensive genetic testing.
The art of anthropodermic bibliopegy grew in popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries, but declined near the end of the Victorian Age for reasons that are probably obvious. Some of these books were bound out of affection for the author.
It would be difficult to identify the donor of the binding, since the process of tanning the skin usually destroys DNA. But inscriptions and historical records exist in some of the books that tell their story. For instance, an inscription on the last page of Harvard’s medieval law-book says that the binding of the book is all that is left of Jonas Wright, a dear friend who was flayed alive. The book was apparently one of Jonas’ favorite possessions, and it was given to a friend with enough of his skin to bind it.
David Ferris, curator of rare books and manuscripts at Langdell, says they are reluctant to have their human-skin bound Spanish Lawbook become an object of fascination. Ann Blair, Lea Professor of History, says she would not want to prioritize this type of book just because of their binding, as the text is what matters most to scholars and students.
By Beth A. Balen