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 : http://www.bostonathenaeum.org/node/191.