Books bound with human flesh seems to be a macabre old wives' tale, or something of the sort. However, there is a long historical tradition of binding books in human skin that weaves its way into history well into the 19th century. Even more terrifying, the 19th century is when they were the most popular.
Seriously, and if you ever want to go visit some of these humans-made-books, you can head over to places like the Mutter Museum and see them in person. In fact, there is even a term for books bound in human skin: "Anthropodermic Bibliopegy" and a book project that has, as of 2016, identified 47 alleged anthroprodermic books in the world's libraries and museums. According to wikipedia, roughly 30 of those are being tested or have been tested and 18 have been confirmed as having human skin bindings.
In an interview with Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris, a medical historian, Vice asked the most simple question: "Why would anyone ever bind a book in human skin?"
Dr. Fitzharris notes that there are likely three reasons, according to her research an experience:
- For Punishment
- To Create Collector's Items
Another historian, Heather Cole, of Harvard's Houghton Library notes that, "The confessions of criminals were occasionally bound in the skin of the convicted, or an individual might request to be memorialized for family or lovers in the form of a book." Which helps to explain why they were so often used as part of a punishment.
The second reason seems, at least, a little obvious. Books bound in human skin were at least a relatively rare item. And, taking an example from the Victorian age when people collected shrunken heads from newly discovered tribes, or stolen Egyptian artifacts claimed to be cursed proved that there was a significant market for the strange and macabre. Dr. Fitzharris continues: "Sometimes they collected books bound in tattooed skin because they made particularly beautiful covers. And in fact there's a lot of preserved tattoos in anatomical collections, and sometimes they're used for these bound books. "
Finally, we arrive at the third reason: memorialization. The Highwayman: Narrative of the Life of James Allen alias George Walton, is probably the most notable example of a book bound in human flesh because it was bound with skin from Allen himself.
Although, I would suggest adding another number to the three reasons that Dr. Fitzharris gives - and that is one of opportunity. Take, for example, the sad story of Mary Lynch's thigh. She was a young woman in her late 20s whose skin was used to bound three different books. There is a record of her entering the Old Blockley almshouse in Philadelphia in 1868. She likely went to this almshouse for help, or to die away from her family members from tuberculosis. Roughly six months from when she entered the almshouse, she died. Dr.John Stockton Hough carried out the autopsy in which he took the liberty of slicing some of her skin. After this, he took his illicit, stolen goods to tan in the almshouse chamber pot. 20+ years later, he used it for the spines of three books written on women's health. It is unclear his intentions or why he did this.
We have examples dating from the sixteenth-century, and although some "human flesh" books turn out to be sheep or other animals, several have been tested and verified as human. And these books are still being analyzed, tested, and reviewed by people in many different disciplines.
For example, an article in JAMA Dermatology featured an examination of a book bound in human skin called, "Anthropodermic Bibliopegy: Lessons From a Different Sort of Dermatologic Text" by dermatologist Vinod Nambudiri who says these strange books, "serve as reminders of the versatility of the body’s largest organ—both during life and beyond."
This image comes from Flickr user Diego da Silva and is liscensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).