Thursday, March 1, 2012

Writing on human skin part II

For my book I had to look up whether there was a special name for the vellum made of human skin rather than animal. As it is, I haven't yet found that out as I was waylaid by morbid curiosity after running across this information.

A long and sometimes gruesome history lies behind the writing on human skin. My previous post was on the tattooing of quotes, the lighter side of writing on human skin. This is the darker side.

In the history of use of human skin and tissue for writing you will run across the Nazis, Ed Gein, Marquis de Sade and Saddam Hussein (wrote in blood). Anatomy textbooks were often bound in skin as were erotica books. Also, judicial recordings were frequently bound in the skins of the condemned. On the most acceptable side, newly popular or informative texts bound for longevity had human skin covers, complete with inscriptions, that often resulted from a voluntary donor (requested in a Will).

Anthropodermic bibliopegy: the practice of binding books in human skin.

Autoanthropodermic bibliopegy: volumes created as a bequest and bound with the skin of the testator (If you wrote in your Will that you wish to have your skin used for binding books your skin may well have been used for just that).

Only one of the below skins may have been taken from a live human. The rest have been taken after death, two likely with consent.
The practice of using human skin to bind books was not an underground or distasteful practice for much of its history. It just wasn't common practice as a great deal of work is involved and skins needed to be obtained. In recent history there have been horrific cases of skins being obtained unlawfully and sometimes from live humans, leading to the outrage most now feel at seeing such bindings. I will not rule either way but rather show you a few examples. You can make up your mind re moral, ethical and sanitary issues. Above all though, knowledge of this practice should never be forgotten as it is one of the practices that can lead to human atrocities. Anything with such potential should not be forgotten in case we must face and fight it again.

Practicarum Quaestionum Circa Leges Regias Hispaniae
Skin from Jonas Wright, 1632.
Last page inscription: “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.”

A True and Perfect Relation of the Whole Proceedings Against the Late Most Barbarous Traitors, Garnet A Jesuit and His Confederates
Skin from Father Henry Garnet, 1606.
Latin cover inscription translates as: “Severe penitence punished the flesh.”
The book is about the Gunpowder Plot and Father Henry Garnet was a co-conspirator to Guy Fawkes.
People believe they can see is face in the cover...

Red Barn Murder Judicial Proceedings
Skin from William Corder (The murderer. Also, his skeleton became a teaching aid in the West Suffolk Hospital), 1828.
Inscribed “The Binding of this book is the skin of the Murderer William Corder taken from his body and tanned by myself in the year 1828. George Creed Surgeon to the Suffolk Hospital.”

Narrative of the Life of James Allen, 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
Skin from James Allen, 1837.
Cover inscription “Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est” translates to “This book by [Allen] bound in his own skin.”

The Poetical Works of John Milton
Skin from George Cudmore (unrelated and unknown to John Milton – this was all the work of a bookbinder/seller who stole the skin of the hanged murderer George Cudmore), 1852.

El Viaje Largo by Tere Medina
Skin from Unknown, 1972.
Inscription: “The cover of this book is made from the leather of the human skin. The Aguadilla tribe of the Mayaguez Plateau region preserves the torso epidermal layer of deceased tribal members. While most of the leather is put to utilitarian use by the Aguadillas, some finds its way to commercial trade markets where there is a small but steady demand. This cover is representative of that demand.”

Other books that were bound in skin:

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, 1818:  skin from James Johnson (unrelated).

Virgil’s Georgics:  skin from Jacques Delille (translator of Virgil’s Georgics – skin stolen when he was lying in state).

Leeds, England Ledger, 1700’s:  skin from Unknown (though suspected to be a victim of the French Revolution).

Terres du Ciel, 1882:  skin unnamed French Countess (She died young from tuberculosis but before she did she asked the book binder Flammarion to use her skin to bind a copy of his next book.)
Cover inscription: “Pious fulfillment of an anonymous wish/ Binding in human skin (woman) 1882.”

De Humani Corporis Fabrica libri septem by Vesalius, 1543: skin from Unknown.

Lincoln the Unknown by Dale Carnegie: several copies covered with jackets containing a patch of skin from an unknown male African American. Skin patches were embossed with the title.

Justine et Juliette by Marquis de Sade: tanned skin from Unknown female’s breasts.


  1. Interesting but scary stuff.

  2. Agreed.
    The most interesting viewpoints on this practice are likely to come from those with medical doctor/mortuary etc. backgrounds, I think. Those who deal with the deceased. Particularly those working in fields related to organ donations.