Old Books Bound in Human Skin Found in Harvard Libraries (and Elsewhere in Boston)


For at least a decade now, the “death of print” has seemed all but inevitable. Amidst all the nos­tal­gia for print­ed lit­er­a­ture, it’s easy to for­get that mass-pro­duced books and media, and a lit­er­ate pop­u­la­tion, are fair­ly recent phe­nom­e­na in human his­to­ry. Books—whether print­ed or hand-copied—had a totemic sta­tus for thou­sands of years, giv­en that they were kept under the pro­tec­tion of an edu­cat­ed elite, who were among the few able to read and inter­pret them. Even after the age of print­ing, books were rare and hard to come by, large­ly too expen­sive for most peo­ple to afford until the advent of paper­backs.

A gris­ly reminder of the book’s sta­tus as an almost mag­i­cal object sur­faced in Harvard’s rare book col­lec­tion a few years ago. In 2006, librar­i­ans dis­cov­ered at least three vol­umes bound in human skin—and as trav­el site Road­trip­pers reports, “in one case, skin har­vest­ed from a man who was flayed alive.” Grue­some as all this seems, the prac­tice of skin-bind­ing was appar­ent­ly not the sole province of ser­i­al killers:

As it turns out, the prac­tice of using human skin to bind books was actu­al­ly pret­ty pop­u­lar dur­ing the 17th cen­tu­ry. It’s referred to as Anthro­po­der­mic bib­liop­e­gy and proved pret­ty com­mon when it came to anatom­i­cal text­books. Med­ical pro­fes­sion­als would often use the flesh of cadav­ers they’d dis­sect­ed dur­ing their research.

The book sup­pos­ed­ly made of flayed skin is a Span­ish law text from the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry titled Prac­ti­carum quaes­tion­um cir­ca leg­es regias (above). Despite an inscrip­tion nam­ing the deceased and claim­ing his skin as the bind­ing, this vol­ume has actu­al­ly just been iden­ti­fied as sheepskin—according to a Har­vard Law Library blog post from yesterday—“thanks to a tech­nique for iden­ti­fy­ing pro­teins that was devel­oped in the last twen­ty years.” Spec­u­lates the Law Library post:

Per­haps before it arrived at HLS [Har­vard Law School] in 1946, the book was bound in a dif­fer­ent bind­ing at some point in its his­to­ry. Or per­haps the inscrip­tion was sim­ply the prod­uct of someone’s macabre imag­i­na­tion.

Nev­er­the­less, oth­er human skin-bound books exist—as far as librar­i­ans and sci­en­tists can deter­mine. For­mer direc­tor of libraries for the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ken­tucky Lawrence S. Thomp­son claims that the prac­tice dates as far back as a 13th cen­tu­ry French Bible and became more com­mon in the 16th and 17th cen­turies. A 1933 Crim­son arti­cle men­tioned anoth­er skin-bound book in a col­lec­tion of minia­ture books, includ­ing this graph­ic detail: “removal of 20 square inch­es of skin from his back failed to impair the health of its donor, who is still alive and in the best of con­di­tion.”

Anoth­er skin-bound vol­ume, which Thomp­son calls “the most famous of all anthro­po­der­mic bind­ings,” resides across the riv­er from Har­vard at inde­pen­dent library the Boston Athenaeum. Called The High­way­man: Nar­ra­tive of the Life of James Allen alias George Wal­ton (above), the book is a mem­oir of the tit­u­lar out­law. The author, reports the Crim­son, “was impressed by the courage of a man whom he once attacked, and when Wal­ton was fac­ing exe­cu­tion, he asked to have his mem­oir bound in his own skin and pre­sent­ed to the brave man.” Thumb through (so to speak) a dig­i­tal copy of Walton’s 1837 mem­oir above, and imag­ine being the recip­i­ent of such a gift.

via Road­trip­pers

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

Medieval Cats Behav­ing Bad­ly: Kit­ties That Left Paw Prints … and Peed … on 15th Cen­tu­ry Man­u­scripts

How a Book Thief Forged a Rare Edi­tion of Galileo’s Sci­en­tif­ic Work, and Almost Pulled it Off

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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