Anthropodermic Bibliopegy, or The Truth About Books Bound In Human Skin

Rare old books are occasionally bound in human skin, including nipples, and even the face of a Guy Fawkes conspirator. Antiquarians have discovered these grisly leather covers on prayer books, astronomy treatises, court cases, and anatomy texts — all written in the past three to four hundred years.

Let's take a look at a how human skin was obtained to bind these books, a couple of particularly strange donors including a 1605 Gunpowder Plot conspirator (now memorialized on Guy Fawkes Day), and binders who aimed to maintain the structure of specific body parts for erotic texts.

Top image is a construction featuring a copy of A True and Perfect Relation and the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis from Evil Dead II, one of the better known fictional applications of anthropodermic bibliopegy.

What Is Anthropodermic Bibliopegy, and How Do You Do It?

Rising in popularity during the 17th and 18th Centuries, the practice of binding books in human skin, anthropodermic bibliopegy, fell off due to its macabre nature near the end of the Victorian Age. Physicians enjoyed the practice, often using human skin, regardless of the source, to bind anatomy texts.

A few examples of books with anthropodermic binding are bound out of affection for the author, but most early examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy are the result of human skin claimed from medical cadavers or criminals sentenced to death, with their skin used to bound the record of their trials as a form of punishment that surpasses death.

The tanning process often destroys DNA traces, so it's hard to identify the "donor." This leaves inscriptions and historical records as the most common methods for identifying books bound in human skin. How can you tell if you've got some human leather instead of cow hide? Human leather has a different pore size and shape than pig or calf skin along with a bizarre waxy smell, allowing fraudulent books to be identified.

Anthropodermic Bibliopegy, or The Truth About Books Bound In Human Skin

The Book Bound With A Human Face

The skin of Father Henry Garnet, a part of the in the 1605 gunpowder plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament (made popular by Alan Moore and David Lloyd's V for Vendetta), binds a 1606 record of offenses against him, entitled A True and Perfect Relation of the Whole Proceedings Against the Late Most Barbarous Traitors, Garnet a Jesuit and His Confederates. The conspiracy still holds a special place for those in Great Britain, with the fifth of November celebrated as Guy Fawkes Day.

Garnet regularly listened to the confessions from the collaborators, and while not an active in the plot to blow up the House of Lords and kill King James I, Garnet received a punishment of death by hanging due to his knowledge of the plan, with his body later drawn and quartered prior to the removal of skin for binding.

One copy of of A True and Perfect Relation bound with Garnet's skin is particularly unusual, as an impression from the face of Garnet is seen on the front cover (there is an image of it above, but the face is actually fairly hard to see). This copy is not very large, approximately 4 by 6 inches, and sold at auction for $11,000 in 2007.

Anthropodermic Bibliopegy, or The Truth About Books Bound In Human Skin

The Ultimate Fan Gesture

An unknown French countess died an early death due to Tuberculosis, and sent an unusual gift to writer and astronomer Camille Flammarion, whom she loved and admired from afar. Flammarion studied the occult and made several dubious claims during his career. In 1910 told Flammarion the New York Times that Halley's Comet would destroy the Earth and later he claimed that intelligent Martians communicated with Earth in the ancient past.

The countess sent a strip of skin from her shoulders to Flammarion, with orders for him to use the piece in the binding of his his next book. Honored by the gesture, Flammarion bound a copy of 1877's Terres du ciel, The Lands of the Sky, a description of the position of the planets in our solar system with her skin. The copy stayed on display in a library in Juvisy-sur-Orge, France until 1925.

Anthropodermic Bibliopegy, or The Truth About Books Bound In Human Skin

The Nipple Book

Medical interns supplied the breasts of deceased female patients to an English binder of erotica in the 19th century, with the breast skin used to bind copies of Justine et Juliette by Donatien Alphonse François, better known as the Marquis de Sade. In one extreme example, intact nipples are found on the front cover of copies of L'eloge des seins, "http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC194573/pdf/mlab00256-0039.pd>The Praise of Breasts of Women, by 18th Century French satirist Claude-François-Xavier Mercier.

See One In Person

If you don't want spend $11,000, you can see examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy in many university and national libraries. One of the prime places to see such work is the Mutter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, where you can also check out Einstein's Brain during the visit. The University of California-Berkeley's Bancroft Library, Brown University, Surgeons' Hall Museumin Edinburgh, and the National Library of Australia also carry examples in their holdings. They probably will not let you touch the books, but then again, would you want to?

Images courtesy of Wilkinson's Auctioneers. Sources linked within the article.

Further Reading:

Enjoy our previous article on using human skin to bind a book and win the affection of a loved one.