Published on Wednesday, 13 November 2013 00:00
Written by Cheryl Teo
Everyone loves leather bound books for their timeless, classic look, sophisticated appeal and durability. Aside from using cow, calf, sheep, or lamb hide, there are some books that are bound in actual human skin. Would human-skin literature still look as gorgeous as their animal-skin counterparts?
The practice of binding books in human skin is called Anthropodermic Bibilopegy. When there is a specific term assigned to it, it just means that it is not all that unusual as you would think it would be. The macabre technique could be traced back well into the 17th century, it then became considerably popular during the French Revolution, and later went on to gain more ground among the upper classes in the 19th century.
A few of these human-skin bound books have withstand time and age and are still in existence today. Let us take a look at some whose skin has been immortalized on literature:
1. A True and Perfect Relation of the Whole Proceedings Against the Late Most Barbarous Traitors, Garnet A Jesuit and His Confederates
Skin Donor: Father Henry Garnet
This book contained an account of the failure, arrest and execution of the Gunpowder Plotters. The Gunpowder Plotters were a group of Catholic rebels who in 1605, attempted to assassinate the Protestant King James I of England, his eldest son, and a handful of the English court and government officials. Their strategy was to explode gunpowder during a session of the Houses of Parliament. This plan which was unsuccessful, later came to be known as the Gunpowder Plot. The Gunpowder Plotters, among the group members, the most famous being Guy Fawkes, were rounded up and executed. However, it was not the skin of this iconic character which turned up on the book, it was instead that of one of his co-conspirators, Father Henry Garnet, the head of the Jesuits in England. Father Henry Garnet's flesh was used after his execution to bind this book with a Latin inscription on the cover which, when translated, reads “severe penitence punished the flesh.” This is one of the most well-known human-skin bound books of all time, since many believe that the markings on it is that of the Father's face forever twisted in agony on its cover.
2. Leeds, England Ledger
Skin Donor: Unknown
In 2006, a 300-year-old ledger was discovered in downtown Leeds, England. It was stumbled upon in the wake of a bungled burglary attempt. Little is known about this mysterious ledger except that it is written in French and dates back to the 1700s. These 2 little facts suggests that it might have been made during the French Revolution, the time when anthropodermic bibliopegy gained significant popularity. If this was indeed made during the French Revolution (which is very highly possible), then this ledger can stand beside other text such as The Rights of Man and the French Constitution of 1793 which are believed to have copies bound in human skin.
3. Red Barn Murder Judicial Proceedings
Skin Donor: William Corder
The Red Barn Murder was a notorious homicide that took place in Polstead, Suffolk, England in 1827. The unfortunate incident took its roots when a young woman, Maria Marten, conceived local rogue William Corder's child out of wedlock, an offense punishable by parish officers. The two decided to make a run for it and they agreed to meet at a local red barn. However, upon meeting, Corder shot Marten and fled the scene. Marten's remains were later discovered and identified when her stepmother started having having unexplainable dreams of Marten being murdered and buried at the Red Barn. The murder of Maria Marten, and the subsequent trial and execution of William Corder became a national sensation which inspired songs, plays, ballads that still exist to this day. After Corder was executed, his body was dissected and examined by medical professionals. His skeleton became a teaching aid in the West Suffolk Hospital, and his skin was tanned by surgeon George Creed and used to bind the account of Corder's own heinous deed. An inscription on the book reads, “The Binding of this book is the skin of the Murderer William Corder taken from his body and tanned by myself in the year 1828. George Creed Surgeon to the Suffolk Hospital.” This book is currently being displayed at Moyse's Hall Museum.
4. Narrative of the Life of James Allen, alias Jonas Pierce, alias James H. York, alias Burley Grove, the Highwayman, Being His Death-bed Confession to the Warden of the Massachusetts State Prison
Skin Donor: James Allen
James Allen was a Massachusetts highwayman in the early 19th century who had a bizarre last request on his death-bed. Allen had been imprisoned as a result from trying to rob a man named John A. Fenno on the Massachusetts Turpike. During the attempted robbery, not only did Fenno fought off Allen's attacks, Fenno even brushed off a gunshot wound. Fenno managed to overpower Allen and brought him to the authorities. Nearing his death in prison, Allen requested that a copy of his memoir which had been transcribed by the prison warden to be bound in his own skin and given to Fenno. The cover of the books has the inscription, “Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est”, which translates to, “This book by [Allen] bound in his own skin.” The book was later on donated by Fenno's descendants to the Boston Anthenaeum.
5. The Poetical Works of John Milton
Skin Donor: George Cudmore
In 1830, Roborough rat-catcher George Cudmore killed his wife with a roasted apple and milk that was laced with arsenic. Cudmore was arrested and sentenced to death by hanging at the Devon County Goal at the Lent Assizes. After his execution, his body was sent to an Exeter hospital for dissection. While at the hospital, a portion of Cudmore's flesh somehow made its way into the hands of Exeter bookseller Mr. W. Clifford. The piece of skin was flayed and tanned into a cover for a copy of The Poetical Works of John Milton. The cover of the book sports an inscription that mentions Cudmore and the crime that led to his demise. The book is now being preserved at the Westcountry Studies Library in Exeter.
While there are no records of it being practiced in today's modern society, anthropodermic bibilopegy was commonly used in the past to bind such texts as anatomy books, last wills, testaments, and judicial proceedings. Even then when it was popular, it was still considered ghastly and cast in an evil light.