The Mysterious Books Bound in Human Skin
[image description: A spooky themed desk with a stack of old books, an antique silver pitcher, and a lamp with its shade knocked askew.]
I love spooky season, though I don’t read a ton of scary books. I enjoy them when I do (like when I read Pet Sematery earlier this year), though they’re not usually the first thing I gravitate toward when looking for something to read. This always comes around to bite me when Halloween comes and I struggle to come up with a good scary book-themed post.
But this year, I found something real creepy to tell you about!
You’ve probably heard that books bound in human skin exist, but there’s quite a bit of mystery around the practice…
First, let’s back up a bit. The practice of binding books in human skin (or, to put it bluntly: human leather) is called anthropodermic bibliopegy. Anthro meaning human, dermic meaning skin, biblio meaning book, pegy meaning… not much, actually. Fun fact: I learned while researching this post that “bibliopegy” is the only word in English that ends in “pegy,” at least according to this one website I found. So don’t yell at me if that’s not the case.
Tanning and leather-working was common practice for many ancient cultures, so it’s not surprising to me that extending that practice to human skin was a thing that happened.
Every time I’ve heard of claims of books bound in human skin, I’ve heard that the skin came from cadavers donated to the medical schools of old, executed criminals, and Holocaust victims. But I never knew if that was true or grossout urban legends passed around the schoolyard.
But like a lot of weird stuff in history, it’s partially true, partly not, and partly unknown.
In my research for this post (resources linked at the bottom of the page), I found that there don’t appear to be a ton of books bound in human skin. Even books long rumored to be bound in skin turned out not to be so when scientifically tested. It turns out there are a number of libraries and other institutions who for many years thought they had books bound in human skin and claimed it as fact until the the Anthropodermic Book Project, a group of scientists who did the lab tests on the books, showed otherwise.
Human leather looks and feels extremely similar to cow and sheep leather, so you can’t tell just by looking at the book with the naked eye. I won’t get into the science part because that’s not my area of expertise and I don’t want to butcher it, but The Anthropodermic Book Project has examined 31 out of 50 books rumored to be human skin and have found that 18 of them were actually made of human skin and 13 of them were animal skin.
My first thought upon hearing this was, why lie? It seems like such an odd thing to lie about––saying a book was bound in human skin when it wasn’t. Sure, there’s an extraordinary morbid factor, but it still seems weird to me. Then again, if human leather feels so similar to animal leather, it’s not unfathomable that there might be books that are actually bound in human skin but that no one has thought to test.
Of the books that were proven to be bound in human skin, some of them were in fact from medical school cadavers, but they weren’t what I’d call “donated.” Some, such as the anthropodermic book in Harvard’s library, were bound in skin of patients that died of natural causes in insane asylums and whose bodies were never claimed by their families. Others were bound in the skin of people who were murdered by bodysnatchers/grave robbers in the Victorian era who profited from the sale of fresh corpses to medical schools. But when fresh corpses were difficult to procure on their own, they turned to serial killing.
Other anthropodermic books were bound in the skin of executed criminals. At least one of the medical bodysnatcher serial killers was executed and bound into a book himself. It was also common practice at one point to bind a criminal’s testimony in the executed criminal’s skin. That of course meant that the execution had to be hanging or some other form of death that wouldn’t mean ruining the skin.
If you’ve heard of Burke’s Skin Book, Burke is the serial killer I’m referring to. When the doctors at the medical college got suspicious over how fresh the corpses he sold them were, they turned him in to the police, who had noticed an uptick in the number of missing persons reported. There was public outcry and Burke was hanged. At this point in history, it was common for the bodies of executed criminals to be dissected publicly as punishment––remember, this is the Victorian era, which was obsessed with the afterlife and believed that people should be buried facing east so that on Christ’s return they could just rise up out of the grave with their body intact and fly up into Heaven. So dissecting was a way of insulting the dead and believed to add a barrier to getting into Heaven.
Executed criminals weren’t the only ones who had their writings bound in their own skin. In the Victorian era, some people requested their skin be used to bind their writings in their will. As an aspiring author, I have to say I’m feeling a bit inspired by this. I mean, after I die I plan to donate my organs to give others life and I think it’d be pretty cool to have my journals bound in my skin. Better that than wasting it in a crematory. But hopefully that’s a long ways off.
In terms of Holocaust victims, I wasn’t able to find any definitive evidence of them being turned into books. However, there are some lampshades known to be made from people killed in the Buchenwald camp, so I’m not going to rule out the fact that it probably (and very unfortunately) happened with books too. Considering how many victims’ bodies were never found, I don’t think anyone could definitively rule it out.
Personally, I think as long as it’s expressly consented to––such as noted as one’s wish in their will––there’s nothing inherently wrong with the practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy itself. It’s only when it’s not consented to that I find it unethical.
Happy Halloween, book nerds!
personal experience as a tour guide in a historic Victorian cemetery