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Shelfies: 3 Places to Find Books Bound in Human Skin

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That's maybe the most personal diary. (Photo: Atlas Obscura)

Leather-bound books are one of the finest ways to give your library a sense of gravitas and history. But books bound in human skin communicate more of a "serial killer" or "necromancer" vibe. Nonetheless, morbid tomes are fascinating artifacts from a time when gruesome human relics could still be created without winding someone up in jail. They are rare, but here are three places that still hold copies of books made out of a human's tanned epidermis.


SURGEONS' HALL MUSEUM
Edinburgh, Scotland

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Yes. That is made of human skin. (Photo: Kim Traynor on Wikipedia)

Scotland's Royal College of Surgeons at Edinburgh houses a great deal of interesting and somewhat morbid artifacts, but the most intriguing relate to the famous grave-robbing and murdering duo, Burke and Hare. In the late 1820s, the pair of dastardly entrepreneurs realized that they could make a pretty penny selling corpses to the surgeon's college for use as anatomical test templates. Unfortunately coming across naturally deceased corpses is a bit tricky and so the pair started making their own. They ended up murdering 16 people for the scheme by the time they were caught. Hare was released, but Burke was hung, dissected, and a book and card case were made of his skin, as though his life had not been morbid enough. Today the small notebook can still be found sitting under Burke's death mask in the college's museum, looking like a rather classy Moleskine.   

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This notebook is gross enough, but this description is definitely grosser. (Photo: Kim Traynor on Wikipedia)

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Yeah, notebook, but when was he skinned? (Photo: Atlas Obscura)


BOSTON ATHENAEUM
Boston, Massachusetts

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That looks like the scrawling that would be held in a skin book. (Photo: Atlas Obscura)

When anthropodermic bibliopegy, or the practice of binding a book in human skin, was in vogue, it was often used as a chronicle of a criminal and their deeds. Not unlike Burke above, convicted criminals would be executed, and their skin would be removed to create a book that detailed their offenses. Just such a book is still held in a box in the Boston Athenaeum. Written by the bandit John Allen, and bound in his skin at his own request, the full title of the book is, 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. It is certainly a grim way to be remembered, but honestly, you can't get much more personal that a memoir held in your own skin. 

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What a fine leathe- GROSS! (Photo: Atlas Obscura)


JOHN HAY LIBRARY
Providence, Rhode Island

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The John Hay Library building. Thankfully not bound in skin. (Photo: Apavlo on Wikipedia)

Other than criminals, the other main contributors to the genre of skin books were doctors. It was not uncommon for unique anatomical texts to be bound in the skin of a cadaver. The John Hay Library in Providence, Rhode Island has one such volume, as well as a pair of other skin books that are simply creepy. The book, De Humanis Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), is an early medical text written in the 1500s, but the copy in the John Hay Library was rebound in human skin in 1898. The other two skin books in the collection, which were also only rebound in the late-1800s are copies of The Dance of Death, collections of medieval woodcuts depicting the various ways people can die, via little tableaus of scythe wielding skeletons and the like.  

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Pictures of the outside of De Humanis Corporis Fabrica were unavailable, but the insides are still pretty gruesome. (Photo: Encephelon on Wikipedia)

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Grim. (Photo: Fastfission on Wikipedia)









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