Anthropodermic bibliopegy is the practice of binding books in human skin. As of April 2022[update], The Anthropodermic Book Project has examined 31 out of 50 books in public institutions supposed to have anthropodermic bindings, of which 18 have been confirmed as human and 13 have been demonstrated to be animal leather instead.
'Bibliopegy' (// BIB-lee-OP-i-jee) is a rare[a] synonym for 'bookbinding'. It combines the Ancient Greek βιβλίον (biblion, "book") and πηγία (pegia, from pegnynai, "to fasten"). The earliest reference in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1876; Merriam-Webster gives the date of first use as c. 1859 and the OED records an instance of 'bibliopegist' for a bookbinder from 1824.
The word 'anthropodermic' (// AN-throh-pə-DUR-mik), combining the Ancient Greek ἄνθρωπος (anthropos, "man" or "human") and δέρμα (derma, "skin"), does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary and appears to be unused in contexts other than bookbinding. The phrase "anthropodermic bibliopegy" has been used at least since Lawrence S. Thompson's article on the subject, published in 1946. The practice of binding a book in the skin of its author – as with The Highwayman – has been called 'autoanthropodermic bibliopegy' (from αὐτός, autos, meaning "self").
An early reference to a book bound in human skin is found in the travels of Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach. Writing about his visit to Bremen in 1710:
(We also saw a little duodecimo, Molleri manuale præparationis ad mortem. There seemed to be nothing remarkable about it, and you couldn't understand why it was here until you read in the front that it was bound in human leather. This unusual binding, the like of which I had never before seen, seemed especially well adapted to this book, dedicated to more meditation about death. You would take it for pig skin.)— translated by Lawrence S. Thompson, Religatum de Pelle Humana
During the French Revolution, there were rumours that a tannery for human skin had been established at Meudon outside Paris. The Carnavalet Museum owns a volume containing the French Constitution of 1793 and Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen described as 'passing for being made in human skin imitating calf'.
The majority of well-attested anthropodermic bindings date from the 19th century.
Surviving examples of human skin bindings have often been commissioned, performed, or collected by medical doctors, who have access to cadavers, sometimes those of executed criminals, such as the case of John Horwood in 1821 and William Corder in 1828. The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh preserves a notebook bound in the skin of the murderer William Burke after his execution and subsequent public dissection by Professor Alexander Monro in 1829. (Note that Horwood, Corder, and Burke were all hanged and not flayed.)
What Lawrence Thompson called "the most famous of all anthropodermic bindings" is exhibited at the Boston Athenaeum, titled The Highwayman: Narrative of the Life of James Allen alias George Walton. It is by James Allen, who made his deathbed confession in prison in 1837 and asked for a copy bound in his own skin to be presented to a man he once tried to rob and admired for his bravery, and another one for his doctor. Once he died, a piece of his back was taken to a tannery and utilized for the book.
An exhibition of fine bindings at the Grolier Club in 1903 included, in a section of 'Bindings in Curious Materials', three editions of Holbein's 'Dance of Death' in 19th-century human skin bindings; two of these now belong to the John Hay Library at Brown University. Other examples of the Dance of Death include an 1856 edition offered at auction by Leonard Smithers in 1895 and an 1842 edition from the personal library of Florin Abelès was offered at auction by Piasa of Paris in 2006. Bookbinder Edward Hertzberg describes the Monastery Hill Bindery having been approached by "[a]n Army Surgeon ... with a copy of Holbein's Dance of Death with the request that we bind it in a piece of human skin, which he brought along."
Another tradition, with less supporting evidence, is that books of erotica have been bound in human skin.
A female admirer of the French astronomer Camille Flammarion supposedly bequeathed her skin to bind one of his books. At Flammarion's observatory, there is a copy of his La pluralité des mondes habités on which is stamped reliure en peau humaine 1880 ("human skin binding, 1880"). This story is sometimes told instead about Les terres du ciel and the donor named as the Comtesse de Saint-Ange.
The Newberry Library in Chicago owns an Arabic manuscript written in 1848, with a handwritten note that it is bound in human skin, though "it is the opinion of the conservation staff that the binding material is not human skin, but rather highly burnished goat". This book is mentioned in the novel The Time Traveler's Wife, much of which is set in the Newberry.
The National Library of Australia holds a 19th-century poetry book with the inscription "Bound in human skin" on the first page. The binding was performed 'before 1890' and identified as human skin by pathologists in 1992.
A portion of the binding in the copy of Dale Carnegie's Lincoln the Unknown that is part of Temple University's Charles L. Blockson Collection was "taken from the skin of a Negro at a Baltimore Hospital and tanned by the Jewell Belting Company".
The identification of human skin bindings has been attempted by examining the pattern of hair follicles, to distinguish human skin from that of other animals typically used for bookbinding, such as calf, sheep, goat, and pig. This is a necessarily subjective test, made harder by the distortions in the process of treating leather for binding. Testing a DNA sample is possible in principle, but DNA can be destroyed when skin is tanned, degrades over time, and can be contaminated by human readers.
Instead, peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF) and matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization (MALDI) have recently been used to identify the material of bookbindings. A tiny sample is extracted from the book's covering and the collagen analysed by mass spectrometry to identify the variety of proteins which are characteristic of different species. PMF can identify skin as belonging to a primate; since monkeys were almost never used as a source of skin for bindings, this implies human skin.
The Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia owns five anthropodermic books, confirmed by peptide mass fingerprinting in 2015, of which three were bound from the skin of one woman. This makes it the largest collection of such books in one institution. The books can be seen in the associated Mütter Museum.
The John Hay Library at Brown University owns four anthropodermic books, also confirmed by PMF: Vesalius's De Humani Corporis Fabrica, two nineteenth-century editions of Holbein's Dance of Death, and Mademoiselle Giraud, My Wife (1891).
Three books in the libraries of Harvard University have been reputed to be bound in human skin, but peptide mass fingerprinting has confirmed only one, Des destinées de l'ame by Arsène Houssaye, held in the Houghton Library. (The other two books at Harvard were determined to be bound in sheepskin, the first being Ovid's Metamorphoses, held in the Countway Library, the second being a treatise on Spanish law, Practicarum quaestionum cirva leges regias Hispaniae, held in the library of Harvard Law School.)
The Harvard skin book belonged to Dr Ludovic Bouland of Strasbourg (died 1932), who rebound a second, De integritatis & corruptionis virginum notis, now in the Wellcome Library in London. The Wellcome also owns a notebook labelled as bound in the skin of 'the Negro whose Execution caused the War of Independence', presumably Crispus Attucks, but the library doubts that it is actually human skin.
|Book (sort by year of publication)||Location (sort by country)||Provenance (sort by year of binding)||Binding and photographs|
|De humani corporis fabrica by Andreas Vesalius (1568)||Providence||Bound in 1867 by Josse Schavye of Brussels for the Paris International Exposition|
|The Dance of death by Hans Holbein (1816)||Providence||Bound in 1893 by Joseph William Zaehnsdorf (1853–1930) of London (son of Joseph Zaehnsdorf).|
|The Dance of death by Hans Holbein (1898)||Providence||Bound between 1898 and 1903 by Alfred J. Cox (1835–1909) of Chicago and owned by Harry Selfridge||Decorated with arrows, death's heads, and knucklebones|
|Mademoiselle Giraud, my wife by Adolphe Belot (1891) (English translation of Mademoiselle Giraud, ma femme, 1870)||Providence|
|Recueil des secrets by Louise Bourgeois Boursier (1601)||Philadelphia||Bound in 1887 by Dr John Stockton Hough with skin he had removed from the thigh of Mary Lynch, who died in 1869 of trichinosis in Blockley Almshouse, Philadelphia||Photograph (left)|
|Les nouvelles découvertes sur toutes les parties principales de l'homme, et de la femme by Louis Barles (1680)||Philadelphia||Bound in 1887 by Dr John Stockton Hough with skin he had removed from the thigh of Mary Lynch, who died in 1869 of trichinosis in Blockley Almshouse, Philadelphia||Photograph (right)|
|De conceptione adversaria by Charles Drelincourt (1686)||Philadelphia||Bound by Dr John Stockton Hough with the tattooed wrist skin of a man who died at Philadelphia Hospital in 1869||Slim book at top right|
|Speculations on the mode and appearances of impregnation in the human female by Robert Couper (1789)||Philadelphia||Bound in 1887 by Dr John Stockton Hough with skin he had removed from the thigh of Mary Lynch, who died in 1869 of trichinosis in Blockley Almshouse, Philadelphia||Binding and testimonial|
|An elementary treatise on human anatomy by Joseph Leidy (1861)||Philadelphia||Joseph Leidy's own copy, with his note: 'The leather with which this book is bound is human skin, from a soldier who died during the great Southern Rebellion.'||Photograph (red spine label)|
|Le traicté de peyne (1868)||New York City||"Bound by Kauffmann-Petit (and signed by [Léon] Maillard)"; Samuel Putnam Avery's copy||"bound by Kauffmann-Petit (...) in human skin, tooled in black on spine and covers; gilt turn-ins; marbled endpapers".|
|Des destinées de l'ame by Arsène Houssaye (1880?)||Cambridge, Massachusetts||Presented by Arsène Houssaye to the bibliophile Dr Ludovic Bouland of Strasbourg, who bound it in skin which he had removed from 'the back of the unclaimed body of a woman patient in a French mental hospital who died suddenly of apoplexy'. Later given to Houghton Library by John B. Stetson Jr.||Front cover|
|Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley (1773)||Cincinnati, Ohio||Given by Bertram Smith of Acres of Books to the Department of Rare Books University of Cincinnati in the 1950s.||Dark brown half leather over parchment. One of three copies of Wheatley's work bound by Joseph William Zaehnsdorf (London) in 1934 for the American book dealer and collector Charles F. Heartman (1883–1953).|
|Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley (1773)||Cincinnati, Ohio||From the Charles F. Heartman Collection of Material Relating to Negro Culture (bookplate). Given by Bertram Smith of Acres of Books to the Cincinnati Public Library in 1958.||Dark brown full leather. One of three copies of Wheatley's work bound by Joseph William Zaehnsdorf (London) in 1934 for the American book dealer and collector Charles F. Heartman (1883–1953).|
|Le Scarabée d'or by Edgar Allan Poe (1892) (French edition of The Gold-Bug)||French private collection (2016)||Bound by Gustave Rykers of Bruxelles (stamped in gilt inside the front cover (in French): "Relié en Peau Humaine. G. Rykers."(Bound in human skin. G. Rykers)). Sold at auction in 2016 to a French private collector. Human skin confirmed in PMF analysis conducted by Dan Kirby in 2018.||"brown leather-backed marbled boards, raised bands, decoration of a gold bug descending front the eye-socket of a skull above a crossed sickle and shovel decoration on spine, marbled endpapers, top edge gilt."|
|Narrative of the Life of James Allen (Boston, Harrington & Co., 1837) · ||Boston, Massachusetts||"Bound by Peter Low in Allen's skin, treated to look like gray deer skin; bears the cover title "Hic liber Waltonis cute compactus est," stamped in gold upon a black leather rectangle."|
|Essai sur les lieux et les dangers des sépultures by Félix Vicq d'Azyr (1778)||Brussels||Bound by Josse Schavye of Brussels (end of 19th century). Sold by Schavye to the Belgian government in 1896 .|
|Opera by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1504)||Notre Dame, Indiana||Supposedly bound in the skin of a 'Moorish chieftain' for Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros and presented to Christopher Columbus (see John Nagy, 'The truth uncovered', Notre Dame Magazine, Spring 2016)||Pigskin; see also |
|Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias Hispaniæ by Juan Gutiérrez (1605)||Cambridge, Massachusetts||Supposedly bound in the skin of Jonas Wright, flayed alive in 1632||Sheepskin; Digitised version|
|Olympe, ou Metamorphose d'Ovide (1597)||Boston||Supposedly bound in human skin according to pencil annotation inside cover||Sheepskin|
|L'idolatrie huguenote by Louis Richeome (1608)||Memphis||Supposedly bound in human skin according to bookseller (see Perry Neil Harrison, 'On the Binding of the University of Memphis' L'idolatrie Huguenote', Notes and Queries 62(4) (2015) 589–591; subscription required)||Sheepskin|
|L'office de l'Eglise en françois (1671)||Berkeley||Supposedly bound in the skin of a victim of the guillotine during the French Revolution||A miniature devotional book 'bound in horse hide, resembling black pebble-grained morocco' (library catalogue record) or a mixture of horse and goat (David Faulds, curator)|
|Relation des mouvemens de la ville de Messine (1676)||Los Angeles||Note believed to be in the handwriting of former owner James Westfall Thompson: 'The binding is human skin. The book is from the library of Armand Jerome Bignon (1711–72), librarian of Louis XV.'||Sheepskin|
|Libri IV de intellectu humanu by John Locke (1709)|| Philadelphia
College of Physicians of Philadelphia, BF 441 L814e 1709
|'Cattle hide' according to Rosenbloom in Lapham's Quarterly|
|Bibliotheca politica (1691–1694) by James Tyrrell|| Huntingdon, Pennsylvania
Juniata College, Beeghly Library
|Supposedly bound in human skin according to a note in the hand of donor Abraham H. Cassel||Sheepskin|
|El largo viaje by Tere Medina (1972)||Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania||Supposedly bound in skin tanned commercially by the 'Aguadilla tribe of the Mayaguez Plateau'||'Very convincing faux leather' (library catalogue record)|
|Bibliotheca by the Pseudo-Apollodorus (Heidelberg: Commelinus, 1599)||Athens, Georgia||Supposedly "bound in human skin, according to note on flyleaf".||Sheepskin|
|De integritatis & corruptionis virginum notis by Séverin Pineau and other works (1663)|| London
Wellcome Library, 41286/A or EPB Bindings 14
|Bound in 1865 by Marcellin Lortic of Paris for the bibliophile Dr Ludovic Bouland of Strasbourg with a woman's skin which he had tanned as a medical student; given to the Wellcome by Annabel Geddes, founder of the London Dungeon|
|Scrutinium scripturarum by Pablo de Santa Maria (Strasbourg: Johann Mentelin, 1470)|| Washington, D.C.
Incun. X .P17 Vollbehr Coll, Library of Congress, Washington DC, USA
|Library of Congress, Loan exhibition of incunabula from the Vollbehr Collection (1928), item 103 (page 5)
Identified by the FBI as ox or bull hide (Carolyn Marvin, 'The body of the text: literacy's corporeal constant', Quarterly Journal of Speech 80(2) (1994), pp. 129–149; (subscription required) doi:10.1080/00335639409384064)
|A True and Perfect Relation of the Whole Proceedings Against ... Garnet a Jesuite (London: Robert Barker, 1606)||Private collection||Sold at auction, 2 December 2007||Photographs|
|Trinum magicum by Caesar Longinus (Frankfurt: Jakob Gottfried Seyler, 1673)|| Brighton
156.14 L86, Jubilee Library, Brighton, UK
|Exercitatio anatomica de glandula pituitaria by Franz Sebastian Vorster and Johann Conrad von Brunner (Heidelberg: Johann David Bergmann, 1688)|| Kansas City
WZ 250 B8974ee 1688, Clendening History of Medicine Library, University of Kansas, Kansas City, USA
|'Inscription verso front free endpaper: [ink] De luxe binding of / human skin from the / circus giant "Perky."' (Catalogue)|
|Ledger in French (18th century)|| Leeds
|BBC News, Skin book owners found by police, 10 May 2006|
|Dissertatio de arteriis et venis intestinorum hominis by Bernhard Siegfried Albinus (Leiden: Dirk Haak, 1736) together with 5 other anatomical illustrations|| Stanford, California
E21H .A325 1736, Lane Medical Library, Stanford University, Stanford, California, US
|'Bound in black leather made from human skin; inscription: "Dieses Buch wurde von mir in Menschenhaut gebunden, Berlin, i. Juni, 1910, Paul Kersten."' (Catalogue)
See Charles D. O'Malley, 'Bound in Full Human Skin', Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 8 (October 1953), pp. 447–448 (subscription required, doi:10.1093/jhmas/VIII.October.447)
|Anatomy epitomized and illustrated by M.N. (London: John Noon, 1737)|| San Marino, California
618830, Huntington Library
|Essai sur l'électricité des corps by Jean-Antoine Nollet (Paris: Frères Guerin, 1746)|| Mâcon
40857, Médiathèque municipale de Mâcon, Mâcon, France
|(Thompson, Religatum, page 152)|
|French Constitution (two copies: 1789 and Dijon: Causse, 1793)|| Paris
|Thompson, page 94; Libération|
|Tableau des prisons de Paris by Coissin (Paris: Michel, 1795?)|| Nîmes
80986, Carré d'Art Bibliothèques
|'Ex Libris : Marcellin Pellet; Reliure en peau humaine.' (Catalogue)|
|The Horwood Book (miscellaneous papers etc. re case of John Horwood executed for murder, 1821–1828)|| Bristol
35893/36/v_i, Bristol Record Office
|Photograph||'Bound in the skin of John Horwood' (Catalogue) On display at M Shed, Bristol|
|An Authentic and Faithful History of the Mysterious Murder of Maria Marten by James Curtis (London: Thomas Kelly, 1828)||Moyse's Hall Museum, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, UK||bound in the skin of William Corder, the murderer|
|Pocketbook (presumably blank) (1829)|| Edinburgh
Surgeons' Hall Museum, Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK
|The poetical works of Rogers, Campbell, J. Montgomery, Lamb, and Kirke White (Paris: A. & W. Galignani, 1829)|| Canberra
RB 821.708 ROG, National Library of Australia, Canberra, Australia
|Photograph #9||'Pencilled note on front free end paper of EAP copy (in Dewey run) reads : Bound in human skin.' (Catalogue)
See also 'In the Flesh?' for confirmation.
|Little poems for little folks by M.S.C. (Philadelphia, Loomis & Peck, 1847)||Sold at auction in 1999||(Thompson, Religatum, page 148) exhibited at Harvard in 1933|
|The Chronicles of Nawat Wuzeer Hyderabad (manuscript, 1848)|| Chicago
Newberry Library, John M. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing, VAULT Case Wing folio Y 4902 .M27
|The poetical works of John Milton (London: William Tegg, 1852)|| Exeter
s095/DEV/MIL, Westcountry Studies Library
|Photograph in BBC News report||'Bound in skin of George Cudmore, hanged for murder, 1830' (Catalogue)|
|Catalogue des sciences médicales of the Bibliothèque impériale, later Bibliothèque nationale (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1857–1873), two volumes bound in one|| Philadelphia
610B P215, Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA
|Bound in 1887 by John Stockton Hough: see Carolyn Marvin, 'The body of the text: literacy's corporeal constant', Quarterly Journal of Speech 80(2) (1994), p. 137 (subscription required)doi:10.1080/00335639409384064 – or the newspaper clipping at Odd Book Bindings-Human Skin Used to Bind a Collection of Medical Books (Los Angeles Herald, May 29, 1904) Sold by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia in 1901: see Anthropodermic Book-bindings, p. 87|
|Koran (Bombay, 1867?)|| Cleveland
John G. White Collection, Cleveland Public Library, Cleveland, Ohio, US
|Les terres du ciel by Camille Flammarion (Paris: Didier, 1877)||Private collection, France||Photograph||Bound in 1882|
|La pluralité des mondes habités by Camille Flammarion (Paris: Didier, 1880)||L’observatoire Camille Flammarion, Juvisy-sur-Orge, France||Photograph||citation|
|Odes d'Horace translated by Henri Patin (Paris: Charpentier, 1883)||
RES A 0360, Médiatheque Pierre Amalric, Albi, France
|'Exemplaire relié avec de la peau humaine prise à l'amphithéâtre de médecine de la faculté de Toulouse en décembre 1883'|
|Lincoln, the Unknown by Dale Carnegie (New York: Century, 1932)|| Philadelphia
E457.C28 1932, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University, Philadelphia, USA
|Recueil de documents concernant Rambert et Mailly compiled by Jean Lacassagne (bound in 1935 with Rambert's tattoo)||Philippe Zoummeroff collection||Digitised version|
|Chirurgia by Nicetas (Paris: Pierre Gaultier, 1544)||Washington, D.C. RD30 .N53 1544 folio, Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology, Smithsonian Institution||Digitised version||suspected not human skin|
|Notebook (Boston, between 1770 and 1800)|| London
EPB Special Bindings, Wellcome Library
|Photograph||'The cover of this book is made of Tanned Skin of the Negro whose Execution caused the War of Independence' (tag) 'Originally thought to be an example of anthropodermic bibliopegy (human skin binding). This is now known to be false.' (Catalogue)|
|The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli (1640?)|| Bath
Bath Central Library
'First English edn of Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (1554 [sic]) bound in human skin' cited in Karen Attar (ed.), Directory of Rare Book and Special Collections in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland (3rd edition, 2016), p. 9
|Opuscules philosophiques et littéraires by J.B.A. Suard (1796)||Rigby Graham article, page 16||Bound by a binder from the Derome family|
|Aur. Corn. Celsi De medicina libri octo (1722)|| Edmonton
R 127 C39 1722, Bruce Peel Special Collections, University of Alberta
|Photograph||'The most infamous book in the JW Scott Health Sciences Library's Rawlinson Rare Book Collection is the "Celsi de medicina libri octo". Published in 1722, this is the book that is purported to be bound in human skin.'|
|New Testament in Chinese ||Philadelphia (Penn.), American Philosophical Society Library, 225.595 N425||Probably printed at the Methodist Episcopal Missionary Press at Foochow. Previously owned by Robert Cornelius V. Meyers of West Philadelphia.||Exhibited in 2005 with the comment : "Rebound in human skin before 1918." Note in APS catalog (MARC view) : "This book is from China and bound in human skin."|
The binding of books in human skin is also a common element within horror films and works of fiction.
Television and cinema
Rosenbloom [Megan Rosenbloom, member of the Anthropodermic Book Project] says the Allen book has been verified as definitely bound in human flesh.
Les analyses viennent d’arriver : il ne s’agit ni de mouton, ni d’un autre animal couramment utilisé pour les reliures, mais bien de peau humaine. (The analyzes just arrived: it is neither sheep nor another animal commonly used for bindings, but human skin.); Royal Library of Belgium (2018). "Un livre relié en peau humaine ?" [A Human Skin Bookbinding ?]. Youtube (in French). Archived from the original on 1 May 2020. Retrieved 10 January 2019.
Il s’agit bien de peau humaine. (This is human skin.).
My cover and pages are my skin. My binding is my hair, twisted together and sewn with needles fashioned from my bones and glue from tendons.