Who needs leather when you have human skin to bind a book?

Photo from Wellcome Library Collections

Turns out that in the 1600’s to the 1800’s, binding books with real human skin taken from unclaimed cadavers were common practice, especially in the medical field and it is specifically known as “anthropodermic bibliopegy”.

As of 2022, there are 18 books confirmed to have been bound by real skin but only a few were disclosed to the public.

So, let’s dive into some of the most controversial book covers in history!

Skin of a Killer

Photo from Sturgeon’s Hall Museum in Edinburg

Take a step back Edward Cullens because the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburg does have the skin of a killer, but it’s bound in a book. The name of the murderer was William Burke and he killed 16 people during his spree with William Hare in 1828 for the purpose of getting more corpses for their anatomical studies.

Photo from Sturgeon’s Hall Museum in Edinburg

Burke was hanged in a public setting. After his execution and the public dissection of his body by Professor Monro, his skeleton was given to the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School and his skin was bound to a pocketbook that’s displayed in the Surgeon’s Hall Museum up to this day with his death mask.

I’m Sorry, Here’s My Skin

Photo from the Boston Athenaeum

The Highwayman: Narrative of the Life of James Allen alias George Walton is another book bound by the skin of a criminal whose main tactics involve theft, robbery, and several jailbreaks.

James Allen laid on his deathbed in prison in 1837 and confessed to all his crimes. He then had a book written about him and requested to have his own skin be the binding of that same book. Today, it lies in one of the displays in the Boston Athenaeum.

The Latin inscription on its dirty gray leather cover says: “HIC LIBER WALTONIS CUTE COMPACTUS EST” and can be translated to: “This book is bound in Walton’s skin.”

Allen a.k.a Walton requested a copy to be presented to one of the men that he tried to rob to symbolize that he was sorry and that he admired the victim’s bravery, while another copy will be given to one of his doctors.

A Thespian’s Legacy

Photo from NST TV

Just this April 4, 2024, the 64th Annual ABAA New York International Antiquarian Book Fair showcased a book bound by a medical student with real human skin. According to Lux Mentis bookseller, Ian Kahn, the book is priced at $45,000.00 and can be purchased by bibliophiles who will be visiting the event.

Based on research and interviews from the family who kept the book in their shelves for years, it was from a certain Spanish relative named Jacopo X who was a medical student and was fond of the theater play “Le Baron” in Paris.

Photo from NST TV

The opportunity to bound the copy of Le Baron in real skin came when the actress on one of the shows died and arrived at the autopsy table of Jacopo X. Unclaimed by any family member, the cadaver was set to be buried in a mass grave where the legacy of the actress will be forgotten.

Therefore, Jacopo took a piece of skin from the actress, processed it, and made it into the cover of his Le Baron copy, making the book a rare gem in today’s generation.

Inspired By The Hymen

Photo from Wellcome Library Collections

Dr. Ludovic Bouland, the man who was very fond of making literal book covers, has another book which is rumored to be bound by a real female hymen!

In a 1663 edition of a book De integritatis et corruptionis virginum notis written by Dr. Severin Pineau, Dr. Bouland let his creative juices flow as he decided to cover the book with something related to its subject matter: virginity. He left a note on its flyleaf saying:

“This curious little book on virginity, which seemed to me to deserve a binding in keeping with its subject matter, is bound with a piece of woman’s skin that I tanned myself with some sumac.”

Photo from Wellcome Library Collections

The contents of the book focused on medical instructions of how to identify if a virgin has been compromised with severe anatomical details for its readers.

Skin For A Book About The Soul

Photo from History Blog

Aside from the hymen book of Dr. Ludovic Bouland, he also owned another book that he bound with the skin of a female. It was the Des destinees de l’ame (Destinies of the Soul) which has been kept by Harvard University. In the recent reports, they disclosed that they have removed the cover due to its ethical morbidity. The skin remains of the unnamed female mental health patient whose skin was used as cover will be buried properly.

There are still other items out there that are made out of human remains, but still yet to be discovered. So, if you know some, share it with us in the comments below!

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