19th century body snatchers/murderers, Burke & Hare, killed 17 people in Edinburgh & sold their bodies for dissection. Burke was convicted & hanged. His body was dissected. His skeleton & death mask are in the University of Edinburgh’s Anatomical Museum. Other parts of his corpse made into useful items such as the binding of a pocketbook & a very elegant calling card case made from the skin of his left hand, now on display at the Police Information Centre on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.
Baaaaaad news for fans of anthropodermic bibliopegy: Recent analyses of a book owned by the HLS Library, long believed but never proven to have been bound in human skin, have conclusively established that the book was bound in sheepskin.
In 2006, a 300-year-old ledger was discovered in downtown Leeds, England. It was found in the wake of a bungled burglary attempt. Not much is known about this ledger. However, it is of some curiosity that this ledger was written in French and dated back to the 1700s. This suggests that it might have been made during the French Revolution, a time when anthropodermic bibliopegy gained popularity.
Amongst a collection of medical oddities housed at the Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh lies a pocketbook. It is dark brown with a pebbled texture and lettering that has faded with age. Upon closer inspection, the words ‘EXECUTED 28 JAN 1829’ come into focus, revealing the item’s true origins. This is a book bound in the skin of William Burke, the notorious murderer and body snatcher of Burke & Hare fame. The process of binding books using human flesh is known as ‘anthropodermic…
become a book after you die: Human skin can be used to make a rather supple type of leather, which makes it perfect for the binding of books. The fancy term for this use of human skin is anthropodermic bibliopegy. In the past there was a fashion for binding books with the skin of hanged criminals, but it was not unknown for people to will that their own skin be used to bind a memorial book after their death.
Three examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy from the John Hay Library. Bottom, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, a 16th century book on human anatomy; middle, Hans Holbein's Dance of Death, binding by Zaehnsdorf; top, another copy of Hans Holbein's Dance of Death, binding by Cox.