A book bound in the skin of the murderer William Burke, on display in Surgeons' Hall Museum in Edinburgh

Anthropodermic bibliopegy is the practice of binding books in human skin. As of April 2022, The Anthropodermic Book Project has examined 31 out of 50 books[1] 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.[1][2]


Bibliopegy (/ˌbɪbliˈɒpɪi/ BIB-lee-OP-i-jee) is a rare[3][a] synonym for 'bookbinding'. It combines the Ancient Greek βιβλίον (biblion, "book") and πηγία (pegia, from pegnynai, "to fasten").[4] The earliest reference in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1876; Merriam-Webster gives the date of first use as c. 1859[5] and the OED records an instance of 'bibliopegist' for a bookbinder from 1824.

Anthropodermic (/ˌænθrpəˈdɜːrmɪk/ 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 seems 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.[6] The practice of binding a book in the skin of its author – as with The Highwayman – has been called 'autoanthropodermic bibliopegy'[7] (from αὐτός, autos, meaning "self").


A 17th-century book on female virginity at the Wellcome Library, rebound in human skin by Dr. Ludovic Bouland around 1865

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[8]

During the French Revolution, there were rumours that a tannery for human skin had been established at Meudon outside Paris.[9] 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".[9]

The majority of well-attested anthropodermic bindings date from the 19th century.


Main article: List of books bound in human skin

Possible human skin binding in the Smithsonian Libraries
Bound in 1863 by Josse Schavye,[10] the same binder of the genuine anthropodermic Vesalius' De Humani Corporis Fabrica in Brown University,[11] and who bound at least four books with human leather in his lifetime.[12]
Panel with Latin inscription in the book: Hic liber femineo corio convestitus est ("This book has been bound with the skin of a woman")[13]


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.[14] 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.[15]

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.[16] Once he died, a piece of his back was taken to a tannery and utilized for the book.[17]

Dance of Death

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;[18] 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[19] 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."[20]

Other examples

Another tradition, with less supporting evidence, is that books of erotica[21][22][23] 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").[24] This story is sometimes told instead about Les terres du ciel and the donor named as the Comtesse de Saint-Ange.

Human Hide Industry - Its Extent in Massachusetts - Both Sides of the Question, 1883 document from the U.S. National Library of Medicine collection

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.[25]

The National Library of Australia holds a 19th-century poetry book with the inscription "Bound in human skin" on the first page.[26] The binding was performed 'before 1890' and identified as human skin by pathologists in 1992.[27]

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".[28]


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.[29]

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,[30] of which three were bound from the skin of one woman.[31] 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:[32] 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:[33] Des destinées de l'ame by Arsène Houssaye, held in the Houghton Library.[34] The other two books at Harvard were determined to be bound in sheepskin, the first being Ovid's Metamorphoses,[35] held in the Countway Library, the second being a treatise on Spanish law, Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias Hispaniae,[36] held in the library of Harvard Law School.[37] In 2024, Harvard University announced they had removed the human skin from Des destinées de l'ame and were working towards a respectful disposition of the human remains.[38]

The Harvard skin book belonged to Dr Ludovic Bouland of Strasbourg (died 1932), who rebound a second, De integritatis & corruptionis virginum notis,[39] 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.

Ethical and legal issues

Due to containing human remains, books bound in human skin are inherently problematic in relation to issues such as human trophy collecting, the repatriation and reburial of human remains, and the British Human Tissue Act 2004. Librarian Paul Needham is one of the most outspoken advocates against their preservation.[40][41] In 2024, Harvard University removed the human skin, stolen post mortem off an unidentified female hospital patient, from Des destinées de l'âme due to ethical concerns.[42][43]

See also


  1. ^ The Oxford English Dictionary places it in Frequency Band 2, for 'words which occur fewer than 0.01 times per million words in typical modern English usage. These are almost exclusively terms which are not part of normal discourse and would be unknown to most people. Many are technical terms from specialized discourses.'[4]


  1. ^ a b "The Anthropodermic Book Project". The Anthropodermic Book Project. Archived from the original on 2016-03-07. Retrieved 2020-03-27.
  2. ^ Megan Rosenbloom clarifies in this interview with Joanna Ebenstein in The Morbid Anatomy Online Journal, 16 April 2020 Archived 20 April 2020 at the Wayback Machine, that these figures do not include books tested from individuals' private collections, as opposed to libraries and museums.
  3. ^ "Google Ngram Viewer". books.google.com. Archived from the original on 2020-10-30. Retrieved 2019-09-08.
  4. ^ a b OED entry for bibliopegy Archived 2022-04-14 at the Wayback Machine, checked 9 September 2016.
  5. ^ Merriam-Webster definition for bibliopegy Archived 2016-09-14 at the Wayback Machine, checked 9 September 2016.
  6. ^ Thompson 1946.
  7. ^ Thompson 1968, pp. 140–142.
  8. ^ Thompson 1968, p. 135.
  9. ^ a b Rosenbloom, Lapham's Quarterly.
  10. ^ "Chirurgia è Graeco in Latinum conuersa". Smithsonian Libraries – Catalog. Archived from the original on 5 December 2018. Retrieved 19 September 2018.
  11. ^ Andreas, Vesalius (1568). De humani corporis fabrica. Brown University Library: Apud Franciscum Franciscium Senensem, & Ioannem Criegher Germanum. Archived from the original on 16 November 2018.
  12. ^ Sorgeloos 2012, p. 135–137.
  13. ^ "This may seem like a morbid question, but I'm curious. Does the Smithsonian have any books bound in human skin in its collection?". Turning the Book Wheel : Tumblr's blog of the Smithsonian Libraries. 30 April 2014. Archived from the original on 26 May 2017. Retrieved 19 September 2018.
  14. ^ "Killer cremated after 180 years". BBC News. 17 August 2004. Archived from the original on 10 August 2017. Retrieved 4 July 2007.
  15. ^ "Pocketbook made from Burke's skin – Surgeons' Hall Museums, Edinburgh". museum.rcsed.ac.uk. Archived from the original on October 10, 2016.
  16. ^ Allen, James; Lincoln, Charles; Low Peter (25 August 2017). "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 [i.e. Charles Lincoln, Jr.]". Harrington & Co. OCLC 01624942. Archived from the original on 3 August 2018. Retrieved 25 August 2017 – via catalog.bostonathenaeum.org Library Catalog.
  17. ^ "Boston Athenaeum Skin Book". Atlas Obscura. Archived from the original on 2020-05-18. Retrieved 2022-04-21.
  18. ^ The Grolier Club of the City of New York. Exhibition of silver, embroidered and curious bookbindings, April 16 to May 9, 1903 Archived October 13, 2020, at the Wayback Machine ([New York City]: The De Vinne Press, [1903]), exhibits 177–179 (pp. 58–59).
  19. ^ Callum James, Leonard Smithers: Human Skin Binding, Front Free Endpaper (May 27, 2009)
  20. ^ Hertzberg, Edward (1933). Forty-four years as a bookbinder. Chicago: Ernst Hertzberg and Sons Monastery Hill Bindery. p. 43.
  21. ^ Thompson 1946, p. 98.
  22. ^ Graham 1965, pp. 16–17.
  23. ^ Joanna Ebenstein, Interview with Megan Rosenbloom Archived 2020-04-20 at the Wayback Machine, The Morbid Anatomy Online Journal (April 16, 2020): 'everyone knows about de Sade: Justine, and Juliette, but I can't find any actual Justine and Juliette anywhere in an actual public library, so if it exists at all it's probably in a private collection'
  24. ^ Aymard, Colette; Mayeur, Laurence-Anne (2016). "L'observatoire de Juvisy-sur-Orge, l'" univers d'un chercheur " à sauvegarder" [The Juvisy-sur-Orge observatory, a 'world of research' worthy of protection]. In situ: Revue des patrimoines (in French). 29 (29). doi:10.4000/insitu.13211.
  25. ^ "Time Traveler's Wife – Newberry". www.newberry.org. Archived from the original on 25 August 2017. Retrieved 25 August 2017.
  26. ^ "Poems bound up in a human skin". Canberra Times. 8 August 2011. Archived from the original on 10 March 2016.
  27. ^ Gordon 2016, p. 122.
  28. ^ Temple University Libraries and Charles L. Blockson, Catalogue of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection: A Unit of the Temple University Libraries, Temple University Press, 1990, p. 16. ISBN 0877227497
  29. ^ "The Science". The Anthropodermic Book Project. 2015-10-19. Archived from the original on 2016-12-22. Retrieved 2022-04-21.
  30. ^ Lander, Beth (2015-10-01). "Welcome to this inaugural edition of Fugitive Leaves…". Archived from the original on 2018-07-17. Retrieved 2022-04-21.
  31. ^ Lander, Beth (2015-10-01). "The Skin She Lived In: Anthropodermic Books in the Historical Medical Library". Archived from the original on 2018-07-17. Retrieved 2022-04-21.
  32. ^ "Is it true the John Hay Library has books bound in human skin? - Answers". Brown University Library. Archived from the original on 2019-11-11. Retrieved 2022-04-21.
  33. ^ "Des destinées de l'ame". Archived from the original on 2022-04-14. Retrieved 2016-08-27.
  34. ^ "Caveat Lecter". Houghton Library Blog. 2014-06-04. Archived from the original on 2014-06-05.
  35. ^ "Olympe, ov Metamorphose d'Ovide". Archived from the original on 2022-04-14. Retrieved 2016-08-27.
  36. ^ "Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias Hispaniæ primæ partis nouæ collectionis regiæ. Liber I et II". hollis.harvard.edu. Archived from the original on 2022-04-14. Retrieved 2022-04-21.
  37. ^ Karen Beck (April 3, 2014). "852 RARE: Old Books, New Technologies, and "The Human Skin Book" at HLS". The Harvard Law School Library Blog. Archived from the original on May 26, 2016. Retrieved April 3, 2014.
  38. ^ "Harvard University removes human skin binding from book". BBC. 28 March 2024. Retrieved 28 March 2024.
  39. ^ Pineau, Séverin; Bonacciuoli, Luigi; Platter, Felix; Gassendi, Pierre; Sebisch, Melchior (October 30, 1663). I. Sever. Pinaei De integritatis & corruptionis virginum notis: graviditate item & partu naturali mulierum, opuscula. II. Ludov. Bonacioli Enneas muliebris. III. Fel. Plateri De origine partium, earumque in utero conformatione. IV. Petri Gassendi De septo cordis pervio, observatio. V. Melchioris Sebizii De notis virginitatis. J. Ravestein. Archived from the original on April 14, 2022. Retrieved October 30, 2021 – via search.wellcomelibrary.org.
  40. ^ A Binding of Human Skin in the Houghton Library: A Recommendation (25 June 2014)
  41. ^ ref name="da1">Rosenbloom, Megan (2020). "The First Printing". Dark Archives: A Librarian's Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin. New York, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp. 27–28. ISBN 978-0-374-13470-9.
  42. ^ https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-68683304
  43. ^ https://library.harvard.edu/statement-des-destinees-de-lame

Further reading

To use with caution