BY DAN ALBAN
On a daytrip to Providence during fly-out week, I stumbled across an unusual and startling artifact on display at Brown University’s John Hay Library – an anatomy book bound in human skin. While such specimens are unusual, they are not as rare as you might think. Many older libraries and rare book collectors, including several at Harvard and in the Boston area, have an almost-literal skeleton in the closet: anthropodermic bibliopegy, the technical term for books bound in human skin.
While it’s not clear how many extant books actually have been bound in human skin, many older libraries (such as the library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia which has four such books, including one with a visible tattoo) have such tomes in their collection, suggesting that anthropodermically bound books number somewhere in the hundreds. Many of these books were likely bound in the 18th or 19th centuries, though some may be centuries older, while a few may even be younger.
Harvard’s Human Book Bindings
As with many venerable American institutions, there are several anthropodermically bound books in the Harvard library system, including two at the medical school library and one at Houghton, the rare book library on the main campus. Of primary interest to law students, however, is an early 17th century treatise on Spanish law in the rare book collection of the Langdell Law Library, Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias Hispaniae…
A faint inscription on the last page of the book reads: “The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my deare friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King btesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace.” (The Wavuma appear to be an African tribe, possibly in current Zimbabwe.)
Based on his research into the history of the book, curator David Ferris believes the inscription is accurate and that the book is indeed bound in human skin. In 1992, a tiny piece of the binding was tested for DNA but the test was inconclusive as the tanning process was deemed to have destroyed the DNA beyond identification.
The binding is stained and parchment-like, rigid (almost brittle) to the touch. The spine is crudely stitched to the front and back panels in a manner that resembles the stitching on primitive leather moccasins displayed in a museum. In a none-too-surprising act of hubris or unwitting efficiency, over-zealous law librarians of a half-century ago committed the blunder of stamping “Harvard Law Library” on the spine of the antique tome.
Harvard acquired the book in February 1946 from a rare book dealer in New Orleans for the cost of $42.50. It is kept in its own box in the rare book collection, but otherwise receives no special treatment. In order to view the book, members of the university community must have a legitimate research interest, fill out some paperwork, check their personal belongings into a locker outside the rare book room, and wait for the book to be retrieved from the storage area. However, if there is sufficient interest in seeing the book, a general viewing may be planned for those who indicate an interest. The library staff is sensitive to the macabre nature of the book and Ferris prefers that the book be viewed as a memento mori rather than a sideshow curiosity.
History of Anthropodermic Bindings
The use of human skin as a medium may be as old as human history itself – the flaying of defeated enemies or prisoners and the use/abuse of their skin dates back to ancient and perhaps even prehistoric times. The ancient Assyrians, in particular, were known for flaying their captives alive and displaying the skins on city walls. Legends and folk tales unavoidably contaminate the factual history of human skin use; books or parchments made of human skin are rumored to have been created as early as the middle ages, when the tanning of human skin (and preservation of other body parts) became something of a fad. While their credibility is questionable, there are some historical reports of a 13th century bible and a text of the Decretals (Catholic canon law) written on human skin.
The first reliable examples of anthropodermic bindings come from the 17th century, but the practice really seems to have taken off during the French Revolution. The derma of victims of that bloodthirsty terror were sometimes used to bind books by its proponents; among other anthropodermically bound documents from that period are a copy of The Rights of Man and several copies of the French Constitution of 1793. From at least this time forward, titillating tales about the mistreatment of human skin became a popular propagandistic tool, used in not only the French Revolution but also the American Civil War, and World Wars I & II.
In the 19th century, book bindings in human skin captured the romantic notions of the upper class, and anthropodermic bindings became more common. A frequent subject of such bindings were anatomy textbooks, which doctors and medical students may have had bound in the skin of cadavers they had dissected. An early example is the anthropodermic book found in Brown’s John Hay library, Vesalius’ classic work of anatomy, De Humanis Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body). The close association of medical and legal gentry of the day led to more than a few law books bound in a similar manner.
Around the same time, the skin of executed criminals was occasionally used for book bindings. The first known example of this was the binding of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary in the skin of criminal James Johnson (relation unknown), after the latter was hung in Norwich in 1818. The museum of Bury St Edmunds, in Suffolk, England contains a more famous example – an account of the trial proceedings against William Corder, perpetrator of the storied ‘Murder in the Red Barn’ of Maria Martin in 1827, bound in the executed murderer’s skin.
Particularly Notable Specimens
Among the most unusual examples of this phenomenon is the autoanthropodermic binding of The Highwayman: Narrative of the Life of James Allen alias George Walton…, the confessions of a highwayman bound in the author’s own skin. The cover bears the inscription “HIC LIBER WALTONIS CUTE COMPACTUS EST” (This book by Walton bound in his own skin). Facing the gallows, Walton specified that a copy of his memoir be bound in his own skin and given to John A. Fenno, a man whom Walton had attempted to rob on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Fenno had impressed Walton by bravely resisting the robbery attempt, weathering a gunshot wound, and assisting in bringing Walton to justice. After Walton’s execution, the book was delivered to Fenno and his ancestors eventually donated it to the Boston Athenaeum, where it remains today.
There are numerous variations on the story of a tubercular female countess who is love-struck by French astronomer Camille Flammarion and bequeaths some of her skin for the binding of his Terres du Ciel. In one version of the story, she invites him to her chateau and tells him that he must accept a present upon her death, which he agrees to without knowing what it will be. In a variation on this story, she is moved to do this because he compliments her on her shoulders and she wants him to never forget her. In yet another variation, she actually has his picture tattooed on the piece of her skin that is used for the book. The actual inscription in the book, however, indicates that he may have only known that the donor of the skin was female. Regardless of the exact details, the book was bound with her skin and placed in the library of the observatory at Juvisy.
In My Life with Paper, master book designer Dard Hunter tells of being hired by a young widow to bind a volume of letters dedicated to her late husband in his skin. Hunter later learns that the widow has remarried and wonders whether her second husband see
s himself as volume two. Hunter concludes, “Let us hope that this was strictly a limited edition.”
Other notable specimens include: a copy of the Koran at the Cleveland Public Library purportedly bound in the skin of a particularly devout believer who decreed the binding in his will, an autoanthropodermic binding of Jacques Delille’s translation of Virgil’s Georgics bound by skin surreptitiously stolen from his corpse while it lay in state, and ironic skin-bound copies of Cutaneous Diseases and The Dance of Death.
Relationship to Nazi Atrocities
When the issue of anthropodermic bindings is discussed, for some it immediately raises comparisons with the purported Nazi use of the skin of concentration camp victims for lampshades during World War II. Assuming these apocryphal stories are true, it seems that the standard practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy, while macabre, is substantially different from the Nazi atrocities. Most importantly, many of the examples of human bookbindings are voluntary – a person expressed a desire that his or her skin be used posthumously for bookbinding. Even for those bindings made of medical cadavers, it seems less objectionable to bind an anatomy book with the skin of a willing medical subject than for a murderer and his accomplices to take trinkets from his murder victims.
The primary area in which moral equivalence may be questionable is in the case of anthropodermic bindings made from executed criminals, who have arguably been murdered themselves, depending on your view of capital punishment. But even in those cases, it still seems to that such bindings were done with more respect, and have a far different purpose than trophies of war and genocide.
Human Skin Lampshade Myth?
However, it turns out that the stories of human skin lampshades are probably poorly grounded. There’s no denying that the Nazis committed horrible atrocities and murdered millions during the Holocaust, but this horrific genocide was so bad that there’s no need for exaggeration. Like the myth of human soap that was debunked 10-15 years ago, the story of human skin lampshades is based largely on rumors and can’t be substantiated.
To get to the bottom of this, I interviewed Ken Kipperman, a leading authority on Nazi use of human remains and Polish-American son of Jewish parents who fled the Holocaust. He is the subject of a 2004 documentary, Shadows of Silence, about his obsessive search for lost human remains from the Holocaust and his compulsive quest to uncover the truth about the notorious “human skin” lampshade shown in an army newsreel days after the liberation of Buchenwald. It turns out, Kipperman tells me, that the famous lampshade from the newsreel footage was not made out of human skin, though it was believed to be at the time, and no human skin lampshades have ever been verified, though he says it’s always possible that one or two were made in isolated incidents.
On the other hand, the Nazis did collect numerous pieces of human skin from concentration camp victims, and were particularly fixated on skin with tattoos, especially colorful tattoos with obscene images. Kipperman has found eight items of human skin in government archives in the Washington, D.C. area where they were filed away and forgotten about after being used as evidence in war crimes trials. Kipperman’s conclusions comport with those of a June 2004 issue of the online de-bunking column The Straight Dope, which determined, “While the Nazis kept many grisly mementos of their victims, including tattooed skin, the lampshade claim may be a myth.”
What about rumors that human skin was used to bind a copy of Mein Kampf or the photo albums of Ilse Koch, “the beast of Buchenwald” and other Nazis? Kipperman says he is unaware of any Nazi anthropodermic bindings and has personally examined many of the souvenir photo albums alleged to be bound in human skin but hasn’t found any evidence of human skin bindings in his extensive research.
Dan Alban is a 3L who likes to get to the bottom of things.
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