It’s widely said that everyone has a book inside them, less common is the knowledge that some people have actually had books made from the outsides of them. Duncan Haskell enters the dark world of anthropodermic bibliopegy
Anthropodermic bibliopegy, the process of binding books in human skin, reached its macabre peak in the 19th century and was of particular interest to medical professionals who had access to cadavers. Some examples include the infamous Edinburgh murderer William Burke (of Burke and Hare fame) who was turned into a small pocket book after his execution in 1829, and John Horwood, the first man to be hanged at Bristol Gaol in 1821, whose skin now envelopes an account of his crime. The Historical Medical Library in Philadelphia houses the largest collection, with five such grisly tomes.
A twist to this tale is provided by The Anthropodermic Book Project. Suspecting that some of these alleged skin-bound volumes were nothing more than a tall story, they’ve begun testing specimens using a process known as peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF). Of the 31 tested, only 18 have been confirmed as human.
It remains uncertain whether the practice was sheer vanity, a deterrent to criminals or an unusual reminder of our own morality. What is clear though is that it’s definitely okay to judge these books by their covers.
Words: Duncan Haskell