Tucked into a wooden box in the Boston Athenaeum library is a curious book. The book has “a slightly bumpy texture, like soft sandpaper” and bears the title “Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est.” The book is the 1837 memoirs of a highwayman, bank robber, and “sneak thief” James Allen. The notorious highwayman once declared himself to be the “‘master of his own skin.” These would prove portentous words, for his memoirs of a lifetime of ill deeds are bound in his own skin.
Anthropodermic bibliopegy, or the practice of binding texts in human skin, has a curious history dating back to at least the Middle Ages, when parchments made of human skin began showing up. The first known books bound in human skin come from the French Revolution, when a number of copies of the French Constitution were bound in the skin of those who opposed the new republic. (These can be seen in the in the Museum Carnavalet in Paris.)
By the 19th century, the practice become almost commonplace. Criminals such as James Allen, James Johnson, William Burke, and William Corder, were hung, flayed, and then bound into books that cataloged their misdeeds.
The other use of anthropodermic bibliopegy was by physicians. Dr. John Stockton Hough bound three medical volumes in the skin of a patient with the first diagnosed case of trichinosis. The doctors found the material to be “relatively cheap, durable, and waterproof.” Books such as the The Dance of Death were being bound in human skin as late as the 1890s. Many libraries—including Brown University’s, Harvard’s, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s, and even the Cleveland Public Library—contain books bound with human skin.
Something that makes Allen’s memoirs in the Boston Athenaeum particularly curious is that Allen actually requested to have the memoirs bound in his hide. He requested the book be made after his execution and given to John Fenno, Jr., the man who was accusing him of attempted murder. According to Allen it was meant as a token of his respect to the man who stood up to him.
Eventually a descendant of Fenno donated the book (previously it had apparently been used by the family to spank naughty children!) to the Athenaeum, where it sits today, describing the life of the man it is also made from.
Know Before You Go
Allen's memoirs can be viewed by advance request only. Call the Athenaeum at least a week ahead of your visit to arrange for a viewing.
- http://www.redorbit.com/news/oddities/352716/human_skinbound_books_in_many_libraries/, http://www.boston.com/news/local/rhode_island/articles/2006/01/07/some_of_nations_best_libraries_have_books_bound_in_human_skin/, http://www.hlrecord.org/home/index.cfm?event=displayArticle&uStory_id=3d42c486-82ec-41f5-92ce-30d8f886dbfb