The art of bookbinding has been around since the 1st century AD. Over the course of time, various mediums have been used to cover the outside of the books. Leather and cloths have been the most common materials used in the binding of book. Would you believe the most unusual material used to cover a book was that of human skin? It is said to feel very soft, much like suede. It is also said to be reasonably inexpensive, durable and waterproof. The practice of binding books in human skin, also known as anthropodermic bibliopegy, appears to have been most popular during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Many of the first books covered in human skin were medical books. The skins were primarily from amputated body parts and unclaimed corpses of the poor but were also obtained through executed criminals. As gruesome as this seems, the medical profession viewed the bodies being used as a compliment to the deceased. Dr. John Stockton Hough, from the University of Philadelphia, was known in for diagnosing the cities first case of trichinosis. He had four medical volumes bound from skin of three of his deceased patients. Another doctor, Dr. Charles Humberd studied gigantism and had a book on the topic bound in human skin. The skin was from an eight feet six inch Ringling Brothers Circus Giant by the name of Perky.
There are also circumstances in which the author or owner of the text donated their body for the purpose of becoming the covering of the book. A book written in 1837 entitled ?Narrative of the life of James Allen, alias George Walton, alias Jonas Pierce, alias James H. York, alias Burley Grove, the highwayman. Being his death-bed confession, to the warden of the Massachusetts state prison? was bound in the author?s own skin. The finished book was then sent to John A. Fenno, one of George Walton?s victims who successfully resisted the robber during the attempted theft. This book was later donated to the Boston Athanaeum, an independent library in Boston, Mass. It was not uncommon for an executed convict?s body to be used to cover the court journal and presented to the victim?s family or for a book to be published about the criminal. Another book bound by the skin of its previous owner is found in the Cleveland Public Library. The book is a Quran, the sacred text of Islam, and its owner was an Arab tribal leader.
Most of the best books bound in human skin are in private libraries throughout the world. One would be surprised how many of these books are in the nation?s finest libraries, including the Harvard University Libraries. There are several books bound in human skin throughout the various libraries, including two at the medical school library. The Harvard law school library purchased a copy of a 1605 practice manual for Spanish lawyers for a mere $42.50 from an antiquarian book seller in New Orleans. The last page of the book was inscribed with:
“The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my deare friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632.? (The Wavuma appear to be an African tribe.)
Other human bound books can be found at Brown University, University of Memphis in Tennessee, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Clendening Library at the University of Kansas Medical Center.