Skin-bound books may sound like weird artifacts that belong in Evil Dead movies or Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. But from the 1600s to 1800s, these suede-like tomes were less necromancy, more commemorative plate. And hell, converting yourself into a human moleskine upon kicking the bucket made for a heartfelt present.
The pre-anesthesia surgery blog The Chirurgeon's Apprentice has a charming overview of the history of "anthropodermic bibliopegy," or the process of binding books with human skin.
Although this process sounds gruesome to modern readers, this procedure possessed a litany of meanings to prior generations. For example, the Scottish mass murderer William Burke was transformed into his own binding as a ghoulish recycling measure — you can see his tome below — whereas other corpses were transformed into books to observe their passing, not unlike Victorian hair art:
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'.
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.
Not a bequeathal for the squeamish, certainly, but it's a twinge more socially acceptable than transforming your skull into a bong. You can read more about anthropodermic bibliopegy here. Hat tip to Zan.