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 bibliopegy.

History of Anthropodermic Bindings

human skin

To bind 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 times.

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 skin.


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 & II.

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 manner.

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.

books bound in human skinThe 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 Corder.

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 performed today

Particularly Notable Specimens

books bound in human skinAmong 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 Massachusetts Turnpike.

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 today.

 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.






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