Books of Human Flesh: The History behind Anthropodermic Bibliopegy

Amongst a collection of medical oddities housed at the Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh lies a tattered pocketbook [left], no longer than the length of a man’s hand. It is dark brown—nearly black—with a pebbled texture and gold lettering that has begun to fade with age. To the untrained eye, it is altogether unremarkable in its appearance. However, upon closer inspection, the words ‘EXECUTED 28 JAN 1829’ and ‘BURKE’S SKIN POCKET BOOK’ come into focus, revealing the item’s true origins.

This is a book bound in the flesh of William Burke, the notorious murderer. Between 1827 and 1828, Burke and his accomplice, William Hare, drugged and killed 16 people for the sole purpose of selling their bodies to the anatomist, Dr Robert Knox. During their murder trial, Hare turned King’s Evidence in exchange for immunity. Burke was eventually found guilty of the murders and hanged before [ironically] being dissected in Edinburgh Medical College.

The process of binding books using human flesh is known as ‘anthropodermic bibliopegy’. One of the earlier examples dates from the 17th century and currently resides in Langdell Law Library at Harvard University. It is a Spanish law book published in 1605. The colour of the binding is a ‘subdued yellow, with sporadic brown and black splotches like an old banana’. [1] On the last page, there is an inscription which reads:

The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma [possibly an African tribe from modern-day Zimbabwe, see below illustration] 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. [2]

Although it seems macabre to our modern sensibilities, this book was rebound as a way of memorialising the life of Jonas Wright. In this way, it is similar to mourning jewellery made from the hair of the deceased and worn by the Victorians during the 19th century. It is a poignant reminder of the life that has been lost.

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’. [3]

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.

And then there were books which claimed to be made from the human flesh but were, in fact, not. One example comes from the Wellcome Collection in London [left]. It is a curious little notebook which professes to be ‘made of Tanned skin of the Negro whose Execution caused the War of Independence’.  Presumably, this refers to Crispus Attucks, a dockworker of Wampanoag who was the first person killed by the British during the Boston Massacre. Immediately following his death, Attucks was held up as an American martyr. As a consequence of its alleged origins, this notebook has become a symbol of the American Revolution.

Anthropodermic bibliopegy reached its height of popularity during the French Revolution, when a fresh supply of bodies was always available. All sorts of books were wrapped in human skins, including a collection of poems by John Milton. One of the last known books to be bound in this fashion dates from 1893 and currently resides at Brown University. The binder did not have quite enough skin for the book, and thus split the piece into two – the front cover is bound using the outer layer of skin; the back cover and spine are bound using the inner layer of skin.

If you didn’t know better, you would think it was suede.

1. Samuel P. Jacobs, ‘The Skinny on Harvard’s Rare Book Collection’, The Crimson (2 February 2006).
2. Qtd. from Ibid.
3. Samuel Lowell Rich, ‘Narrative of the Life of James Allen, The Highway Man’, Boston Athenaeum :

By | 2012-01-31T10:05:11+00:00 January 31st, 2012|Casebooks|44 Comments


  1. Tom Blaen January 31, 2012 at 1:01 pm - Reply

    This made me recall the use by the Nazis of human body parts for lampshades and other ‘decorative/functional’ uses. I guess the Nazi use is different in the small but ultimately significant sense, in that the earlier use was memorializing (either positively for a friend or negatively for a criminal) but the Nazi use was basically the de-humanizing (or animalization) of people’s bodies. If you think a Jew is like a pig then why treat their body parts any differently. With the earlier use you remember the person, with the later you forget they ever were a person.

  2. Jacka January 31, 2012 at 11:50 pm - Reply

    ^ As the above comment notes, there is a legend about the Nazis creating furniture out of slaughtered Jews, and so after a bit of research I found one mention of a lampshade which dates from the period and which apparently does seem to be made of human skin, although there is no definite proof of its origin. I don’t dispute that it was “beneath” the Nazis to do that, but we can only say that it appears to be true. As for the case of Burke, I’m highly skeptical about this. I would of course believe it if I saw proof, but on the Edinburgh Medical College’s website it refers to the wallet as “reputedly” made from Burke’s skin. There have been worse things made from human skin (consider the Icelandic ritual of creating trousers out of the deceased), but I’m highly skeptical of how widespread such practices have been claimed to have been, because even by the messed-up standards of the day, I think that it is unlikely that these macabre things could have been done so openly, although obviously I’m willing to be proved wrong. Again, to clarify I don’t think that British people in 1829 weren’t capable of such barbarity, just that I doubt it would have been done so openly. NB: I didn’t look into any of the other claims on here, because even a pedant like me gets tired eventually.

    • The Chirurgeon's Apprentice February 1, 2012 at 10:39 am - Reply

      Thanks for your insights. It is true that some books which claim to be made from human flesh are, in fact, not (i.e. the notebook from the Wellcome Collection discussed above). That said, DNA tests on several books have shown that they were bound in this fashion. The reason why the Burke pocketbook is described on the website as ‘reputedly’ made from Burke’s skin may be one of two reasons: a DNA test has not been carried out, or a DNA test has been carried out but was inconclusive. Had the library definite proof that it was not human flesh, it would state so in the catalogue.

      As a historian of early modern medicine, it is not difficult for me to believe these claims as there are other examples of books bound with the flesh of executed criminals from this period now residing in libraries all around the world. Legal records from the Old Bailey also mention this type of activity. Given the fact that Burke was dissected as a part of his punishment, and that his crimes were so notorious, it seems all the more likely to be true.

      As far anthropodermic bibliopegy being done so openly – I can only stress again that it was not necessarily macabre to contemporaries living in these periods. Consider the example of Jonas Wright. Here, the friend clearly uses his flesh to bind a book as a keepsake. Other books were bound in this fashion purely for pragmatic purposes – as in the case of medical texts being bound with the flesh of dissected cadavers.

      Perhaps most importantly, people from these periods believed that these books were bound in human flesh. Whether true or not, it is an important part of these objects’ stories.

  3. Gham February 1, 2012 at 12:44 am - Reply

    I think a bigger difference is that the Nazi lampshade is a myth.

  4. quorlia February 10, 2012 at 3:42 am - Reply

    I recall a case on the radio in the mid 90’s of a man who willed that his skin be used to bind a book. His widow was having difficulty finding someone to do it if I recall correctly.

  5. David F February 13, 2012 at 8:02 am - Reply

    The Nazi story is true, but largely forgotten I guess. Ilse Koch used to have inmates who had tatoos she liked killed, and that part of their skin which had a tatoo on it tanned. Most were stored, I gather, but some were made into lamp-shades.

    Google her.

  6. […] The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice provides a gruesome yet informative account of the art of Anthropodermic Bibliopegy, or the binding of texts in human […]

  7. […] materials people starting doing all sorts of bizarre shit like hacking each other to pieces and making books out of their […]

  8. thegeorgiangentleman April 3, 2012 at 3:55 pm - Reply

    In the John Horwood murder case (Bristol 1821) the surgeon who carried out the dissection after death by the name of Richard Smith paid a local tanner one pound ten shillings to have the flayed skin tanned and made it into a book binding. The receipt is inside the cover and is held by Bristol Records Office. I will be doing a post on it shortly since it was another 190 years after death before poor John Horwoods remains were finally buried!

  9. […] the binding is a ‘subdued yellow, with sporadic brown and black splotches like an old banana’. [1] On the last page, there is an inscription which […]

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  11. […] books with human skin. Lots of fascinating details about the history of the process can be found here. Below is a notable example. This pocketbook is housed at the Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh, […]

  12. […] Books of Human Flesh: The History behind Anthropodermic Bibliopegy […]

  13. […] Fitzharris pointed out on her brilliant blog The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice earlier this year, anthropodermic bibliopegy, or book covers made of human skin were quite mainstream items once, particularly around the French […]

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  17. […] you’d like to learn more about anthropodermic bibliopegy? Or why anatomical collections came into existence in the first place? What about the […]

  18. Amardeep Singh Sadhra March 8, 2013 at 2:24 pm - Reply

    Fascinating & intriguing Lindsey as always 🙂

  19. […] the binding is a ‘subdued yellow, with sporadic brown and black splotches like an old banana’. On the last page, there is an inscription which […]

  20. […] blood during the dissection; the body was partially skinned and items such as wallets and a book binding were made from it. A calling card case of Burke’s skin may be seen in the Police Museum at […]

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  22. The Battle of the Tooth Worm « January 6, 2014 at 12:38 pm - Reply

    […] come across a lot of strange objects in my research: books bound in human skin, prosthetic noses made of silver, iron coffins with safety devices to prevent premature burial. But […]

  23. Nils Hoppe January 6, 2014 at 3:46 pm - Reply

    Reblogged this on Nils Hoppe and commented:
    Great read for anyone interested in body property issues

  24. […] Anthropodermic bibliopegy, which is a fancy way of saying folks used to make books out of human skin. […]

  25. […] come across a lot of strange objects in my research: books bound in human skin, prosthetic noses made of silver, iron coffins with safety devices to prevent premature burial. But […]

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  27. […] You may have read recently about the books in the Harvard library that are bound with human flesh. I find this practice, which was somewhat popular in the 17th century, both interesting and disgusting. It ends up there’s even a term for binding books in human flesh – anthropodermic bibliopegy. […]

  28. […] Chirurgeon’s Apprentice blog brings us a little history of anthropodermic bibliopegy. (This includes a note about a Harvard Law Library book which, as the link above tells us, has […]

  29. artistn18 October 28, 2014 at 10:10 pm - Reply

    Reblogged this on artste19 and commented:
    something nice and strange in lieu of the Halloween season….are you sure that book is bound in cowleather? :3

  30. […] Books of Human Flesh: The History behind Anthropodermic Bibliopegy (53,911 hits) […]

  31. […] at University of Edinburgh medical college, and, as was the style at the time, his skin was used to make a pocket book now on display at the Surgeons’ School […]

  32. Andy November 7, 2014 at 12:15 pm - Reply
  33. dwesterhof December 8, 2014 at 6:15 pm - Reply

    Reblogged this on Behind the Spines and commented:
    Not for the faint-hearted, but this older blog post from the Chirurgeon’s Apprentice caught my eye. Using human skin to cover book bindings: Post-mortem punishment, commemoration or celebrity fetishization?

  34. […] are the words: “EXECUTED 28 JAN 1829.” This isn’t normal leather: the book is bound in the flesh of William Burke—or what was left of him after he was hanged and […]

  35. Kimberly Sprano July 16, 2015 at 1:40 pm - Reply

    What is a book such as an authentic William Burke bound by flesh be worth today?

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  40. […] behind it remains unknown.  As I read about anthropodermic bibliopegy, it was interesting to see how many articles that pre-dated the tests in 2014 discuss the memorial dedicated to poor Jonas Wright in the form of a book made from his skin, […]

  41. […] are the words: “EXECUTED 28 JAN 1829.” This isn’t normal leather: the book is bound in the flesh of William Burke—or what was left of him after he was hanged and […]

  42. […] Dr. Fitzharris is a medical historian; if you’re interested in the often gruesome methods of early surgery, she’s got you covered. This video, part of her series Under The Knife, is a terrific exploration not only of what human skin books are, but why they were so valued — and why we find them so fascinating today. You can also read more about Burke’s Skin Pocket Book — a book bound in the skin of graverobber William Burke following his 1829 execution in Edinburgh — at Dr. Fitzharris’ site, The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice. […]

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