Anthropodermic Bindings Or
Books Bound In Human Skin.
Leather-bound books are always lovely.
But when that leather is human skin -- that's creepy, right?
But it's not unheard of -- in fact, books bound in human skin
were once common enough to get its own name: Anthropodermic
History of Anthropodermic
books in human skin, as a medium,
may be as old as human history itself - the flaying of
defeated enemies or prisoners and the use/abuse of their
skin dates back to ancient and perhaps even prehistoric
The ancient Assyrians, in particular,
were known for flaying their captives alive and displaying the
skins on city walls.
Legends and folk tales unavoidably
contaminate the factual history of human skin use; bindings in
human skin are rumoured to have been created as early as the
Middle Ages, when the tanning of human skin (and preservation
of other body parts) became something of a fad.
While their credibility is questionable,
there are some historical reports of a 13th century bible and a
text of the Decretals (Catholic canon law) written on human
The first reliable examples of books
being bound in human skin come from the 17th century, but the
practice really seems to have taken off during the French
Revolution. The derma of victims of that bloodthirsty terror
were sometimes used to bind books by its proponents; among
other anthropodermically bound documents from that period are a
copy of The Rights of Man and several copies of the French
Constitution of 1793.
From at least this time forward,
titillating tales about the mistreatment of human skin became a
popular propagandistic tool, used in not only the French
Revolution but also the American Civil War, and World Wars I
In the 19th century, books bound in
human skin captured the romantic notions of the upper class,
and anthropodermic bindings became more common. A frequent
subject of such bindings were anatomy textbooks, which doctors
and medical students may have had bound in the skin of cadavers
they had dissected.
An early example is the anthropodermic
book found in Brown's John Hay library, Vesalius' classic work
of anatomy, De Humanis Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the
Human Body). The close association of medical and legal gentry
of the day led to more than a few law books bound in a similar
Around the same time, the skin of executed criminals was
occasionally used for book bindings. The first known example of
this was the binding of Samuel Johnson's dictionary in the skin
of criminal James Johnson (relation unknown), after the latter
was hung in Norwich in 1818.
The museum of Bury St Edmunds, in
Suffolk, England contains a more famous example - an
account of the trial proceedings against William Corder,
(see illustration left) perpetrator of the storied 'Murder
in the Red Barn' of Maria Martin in 1827, bound in the
executed murderer's skin.
The Red Barn Murder was a notorious murder
committed in Polstead, Suffolk, England, in 1827. A young
woman, Maria Marten, was shot dead by her lover, William
The two had arranged to meet at the Red
Barn, a local landmark, before eloping to Ipswich. Maria was
never heard from again. Corder fled the scene and although he
sent Marten's family letters claiming she was in good health,
her body was later discovered buried in the barn after her
stepmother spoke of having dreamt about the murder.
Corder was tracked down in London, where he
had married and started a new life. He was brought back to
Suffolk, and after a well-publicised trial, found guilty of
murder. He was hanged in Bury St. Edmunds in 1828; a huge crowd
witnessed Corder's execution.
The story provoked numerous articles in
the newspapers, and songs and plays. The village where the
crime had taken place became a tourist attraction and the barn
was stripped by souvenir hunters. The plays and ballads
remained popular throughout the next century and continue to be
Among the most unusual examples of
this phenomenon is the autoanthropodermic binding of The
Highwayman: Narrative of the Life of James Allen alias
George Walton, the confessions of a highwayman bound in
the author's own skin.
The cover bears the inscription "HIC
LIBER WALTONIS CUTE COMPACTUS EST" (This book by Walton bound
in his own skin).
Facing the gallows, Walton specified
that a copy of his memoir be bound in his own skin and given to
John A. Fenno, a man whom Walton had attempted to rob on the
Fenno had impressed Walton by bravely
resisting the robbery attempt, weathering a gunshot wound, and
assisting in bringing Walton to justice. After Walton's
execution, the book was delivered to Fenno and his ancestors
eventually donated it to the Boston Athenaeum, where it remains
In “My Life with Paper”, master
book designer Dard Hunter tells of being hired by a young widow
to bind a volume of letters dedicated to her late husband in
his skin. Hunter later learns that the widow has remarried and
wonders whether her second husband sees himself as volume two.
Let's hope this was a strictly limited edition.
Other notable specimens include: a copy of
the Koran at the Cleveland Public Library purportedly bound in
the skin of a particularly devout believer who decreed the
binding in his will, an autoanthropodermic binding of Jacques
Delille's translation of Virgil's Georgics bound by skin
surreptitiously stolen from his corpse while it lay in state,
and ironic skin-bound copies of Cutaneous Diseases and The
Dance of Death. Creepy.
EVERY MONTH I SEND OUT THE BOOKBINDERS
DIGEST. WHICH AIMS TO BRING YOU INTERESTING ITEMS CONCERNING
THE WORLD OF BOOKBINDING AND RELATED CRAFTS. IF YOU WOULD CARE
TO SUBSCRIBE PLEASE JUST MAIL ME PUTTING "EDEN" IN THE SUBJECT