Throughout history the human race has had a morbid fascination with binding books in our own flesh. In fact, for a stretch of time in the 1800s, it was actually considered trendy, and books made of human flesh were considered to be talisman, almost like good luck charms. It happened so much that there is actually an academic name for the process- anthropodermic bibliopegy. Many of these disturbing tomes still exist today. Below are 5 historical examples of books bound in human skin and the stories behind them.
The John Stockton Hough Collection
Sometimes doctors bound books in human flesh just for the hell of it and for their own macabre collections. Pittsburg doctor John Stockton Hough is reported to have done just this. He created several books bound in the flesh of his deceased patients, most of which are now housed at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. One made in the late 1800s was made from the thigh of someone known only as “Mary L”. After research, the Mutter Museum learned the skin came from an Irish immigrant named Mary Lynch who died in 1869 from the parasite trichinosis. Hough, who was the resident doctor at the hospital, took the skin just after her death and held onto it for several decades before deciding to bind several tomes in it.
Des Destinees de l’Ame (Destinies of the Soul)
This one lives at the Harvard library and is rumored to have been bound in the skin of a female mental patient. In the 1880s, the writer (Arsene Houssaye) reportedly gave the book to a friend of his who happened to be a doctor and he did the morbid binding.
UK’s Bristol Record Office Ledger
Though not officially titled since it is more of a historical ledger, the book was bound with the skin of the first man hung in the town of Bristol Gaol. In 1821, 18-year-old John Horwood was hung for murder after he beat a girl to death with a rock. After his hanging, his body was publicly dissected during a lecture by Dr. Richard Smith who later used Horwood’s skin to bind together a collection of documents from the murder case. The book is now on display in a British museum.
The Small Pocket Book of William Burke
William Burke was a criminal who used to provide bodies to medical students for dissection. When he grew tired of digging people up, he just began killing them instead. Burke was eventually tried and put to death for murdering at least 15 people and selling their bodies. There was a public dissection and portions of his skin went missing afterwards. Years later, his skin ended up binding a small pocket book that is stamped with his execution date- 1829. This supposedly started a very morbid trend of turning parts from murderers into keepsakes as good lucks charms.
Part of the surge in human bound books was also due in part to an 1800s law in Europe that stated that criminals could not be buried under ground. They either had to be publicly dissected or left hanging where they were executed. The skin bindings were a way to dispose of the materials post-execution.
Narrative of the Life of James Allen : Alias George Walton, 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.
James Allen (who apparently went by a lot of names) willingly gave his skin to a book about his own life, requiring that documentation be written after his death chronicling his lengthy criminal spree. He required that two copies be printed and bound in his own skin. One was to be given to his doctor and the second one to a man he had previously tried to rob but was somehow able to fight him off. I guess that gained enough respect from James aka George aka Burley that he would give the man his own skin in return.