Anthropodermic bibliopegy

A book bound in the skin of the murderer William Burke, on display in Surgeons' Hall Museum in Edinburgh.

Anthropodermic bibliopegy is the practice of binding books in human skin. As of April 2016, The Anthropodermic Book Project "has identified 47 alleged anthropodermic books in the world's libraries and museums. Of those, 30 books have been tested or are in the process of being tested. Seventeen of the books have been confirmed as having human skin bindings and nine were proven to be not of human origin but of sheep, pig, cow, or other animals."[1] (The confirmed figures as of September 2016 have increased to 18 bindings identified as human and 12 disproved.[2])


Bibliopegy (/bɪblɪˈɒpɪi/ bib-li-OP-i-jee) is a rare[3][4] synonym for bookbinding. It combines the Ancient Greek βιβλίον (biblion = book) and πηγία (pegia, from pegnynai = to fasten).[5] The earliest reference in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1876; Merriam-Webster gives the date of first use as circa 1859[6] and the OED records an instance of bibliopegist for a bookbinder from 1824.

The word anthropodermic, combining the Ancient Greek ἄνθρωπος (anthropos = man or human) and δέρμα (derma = skin), does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary and appears never to be used in contexts other than bookbinding. The practice of binding a book in the skin of its author - as with The Highwayman, discussed below - has been called 'autoanthropodermic bibliopegy'.[7]


A book in the Wellcome Library bound in human skin.

An early reference to a book bound in human skin is found in the travels of Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach. Writing about his visit to Bremen in 1710:

Auch sahen wir noch ein klein Büchelgen in Duodetz, Molleri manuale præparationis ad mortem. Man würde daran wohl nichts merkwürdiges finden, und warum es allhier stehe, erkennen, wenn man nicht vornen läse, daß es in Menschen-Leder eingebunden sey; welcher sonderbare Band, desgleichen ich noch nie gesehen, sich zu diesem Buche, zu besserer Betrachtung des Todes, wohl schicket. Man sollte es wohl vor Schwein-Leder ansehen.
Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach, Merkwürdige Reisen durch Niedersachsen, Holland und Engelland[8]
(We also saw a little duodecimo, Molleri manuale præparationis ad mortem. There seemed to be nothing remarkable about it, and you couldn't understand why it was here until you read in the front that it was bound in human leather. This unusual binding, the like of which I had never before seen, seemed especially well adapted to this book, dedicated to more meditation about death. You would take it for pig skin.)
translated by Lawrence S. Thompson, Religatum de Pelle Humana[9]

The oldest surviving anthropodermic binding appears to date from later in the 18th century. The Charles E. Young Research Library at UCLA owns a copy of Relation des mouvemens de la ville de Messine, printed in 1676, with the following note believed to have been written by James Westfall Thompson: 'The binding is human skin. The book is from the library of Armand Jerome Bignon (1711-1772), librarian of Louis XV.'[10][11]

The majority of well-attested anthropodermic bindings date from the 19th century. An exhibition of fine bindings at the Grolier Club in 1903 included, in a section of 'Bindings in Curious Materials', three editions of Holbein's 'Dance of Death' in 19th century human skin bindings;[12] two of these now belong to the John Hay Library at Brown University.


Surviving historical examples of this technique include anatomy texts bound with the skin of dissected cadavers, volumes created as a bequest and bound with the skin of the testator, and copies of judicial proceedings bound in the skin of the murderer convicted in those proceedings, such as in the case of John Horwood in 1821 and the Red Barn Murder in 1828.[13] There is also a tradition of certain volumes of erotica being bound in human skin. Examples reported include a copy of the Marquis de Sade's Justine et Juliette bound in tanned skin from female breasts.[14]:98 Other examples are known, with the feature of the intact human nipple on one or more of the boards of the book.[14]:99

What Lawrence Thompson called "the most famous of all anthropodermic bindings" is exhibited at the Boston Athenaeum, titled The Highwayman: Narrative of the Life of James Allen alias George Walton. It is by James Allen, who asked to have his memoir bound in his own skin and presented to a man he once tried to rob and admired for his bravery.[15]

The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh preserves a notebook bound in the skin of the murderer William Burke after his execution and subsequent public dissection by Professor Alexander Monro in 1829. [16]

The Newberry Library in Chicago owns an Arabic manuscript written in 1848, with a handwritten note that it is bound in human skin. This book is mentioned in the novel The Time Traveler's Wife, much of which is set in the Newberry.[17]

The French astronomer Camille Flammarion's book Les terres du ciel (The Worlds of the Sky) (1877) was bound with the skin donated from a female admirer.[18]

A portion of the binding in the copy of Dale Carnegie's Lincoln the Unknown that is part of the collection of Temple University's Charles L. Blockson Collection was "taken from the skin of a Negro at a Baltimore Hospital and tanned by the Jewell Belting Company".[19]

The National Library of Australia holds a book of 18th century poetry with the inscription "Bound in human skin" on the first page.[20]

Bookbinder Edward Hertzberg describes the Monastery Hill Bindery having been approached by "[a]n Army Surgeon ... with a copy of Holbein's Dance of Death with the request that we bind it in a piece of human skin, which he brought along." Further description of the proffered skin and binding, which was inlaid with different piece of leather and decorated with a skull, is in the short paragraph.[21]

A contemporary account of the execution of Henry Garnet for his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot, A True and Perfect Relation of the Whole Proceedings Against ... Garnet a Jesuit, was alleged to be bound in Garnet's skin when auctioned in 2007. [22]

As well as the examples of the Dance of Death exhibited at the Grolier Club (see above), an 1856 edition was offered at auction by Leonard Smithers in 1895[23] and an 1842 edition from the personal library of Florin Abelès was offered at auction by Piasa of Paris in 2006.


The identification of human skin bindings has been attempted by examining the pattern of hair follicles, to distinguish human skin from that of other animals typically used for bookbinding, such as calf, sheep, goat, and pig. This is a necessarily subjective test, made harder by the distortions in the process of treating leather for binding. Testing a DNA sample is possible in principle, but DNA can be destroyed when skin is tanned, it degrades over time, and it can be contaminated by human readers.[24]

Instead, peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF) and matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization (MALDI) have recently been used to identify the material of bookbindings. A tiny sample is extracted from the book's covering and the collagen analysed by mass spectrometry to identify the variety of proteins which are characteristic of different species. PMF can identify skin as belonging to a primate; since monkeys were almost never used as a source of skin for bindings, this implies human skin.

The Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia owns five anthropodermic books, confirmed by peptide mass fingerprinting in 2015,[25] of which three were bound from the skin of one woman.[26] This makes it the largest collection of such books in one institution. The books can be seen in the associated Mütter Museum.

The John Hay Library at Brown University owns four anthropodermic books, also confirmed by PMF:[27] Vesalius's De Humani Corporis Fabrica, two nineteenth-century editions of Holbein's Dance of Death, and Mademoiselle Giraud, My Wife (1891).

Three books in the libraries of Harvard University have been reputed to be bound in human skin, but peptide mass fingerprinting has confirmed only one, Des destinées de l'ame by Arsène Houssaye, held in the Houghton Library.[28] (The other two books at Harvard were determined to be bound in sheepskin, the first being Ovid's Metamorphoses held in the Countway Library, the second being a treatise on Spanish law, Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias Hispaniae, held in the library of Harvard Law School .[29])

The Harvard skin book belonged to Dr Ludovic Bouland of Strasbourg, who owned a second, De integritatis & corruptionis virginum notis, now in the Wellcome Library in London. The Wellcome also owns a notebook labelled as bound in the skin of 'the Negro whose Execution caused the War of Independence', presumably Crispus Attucks, but the library doubts that it is actually human skin.

Peptide mass fingerprinting was also used to determine the binding material for a miniature devotional book in the University of California's Bancroft Library, L'office de l'Eglise en françois. It is now known not to be bound in human skin but horse hide, or a mixture of horse and goatskin.[30]

Confirmed by peptide mass fingerprinting
Book Location Provenance Binding
De humani corporis fabrica by Andreas Vesalius (1568) United States Providence

Brown University, John Hay Library, RARE 1-SIZE QM21 .V37 1568

Bound in 1867 by J. Schavye of Brussels for the Paris International Exposition
The dance of death by Hans Holbein (1816) United States Providence

Brown University, John Hay Library, N7720.H6 A43 1816

Bound in 1893 by Zaehnsdorf of London
The dance of death by Hans Holbein (1898) United States Providence

Brown University, John Hay Library, N7720.H6 D5x 1898

Bound (presumably around 1898) by Alfred J. Cox of Chicago and owned by Harry Selfridge Decorated with arrows, death's heads, and knucklebones
Mademoiselle Giraud, my wife by Adolphe Belot (1891) United States Providence

Brown University, John Hay Library, PQ2193.B7 M313 1891

Recueil des secrets by Louise Bourgeois Boursier (1635) United States Philadelphia

College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Historical Medical Library, Ga 168

Bound in 1887 by Dr John Stockton Hough with skin he had removed from the thigh of Mary Lynch, who died in 1869 of trichinosis in Blockley Almshouse, Philadelphia Photograph (left)
Les nouvelles découvertes sur toutes les parties principales de l'homme, et de la femme by Louis Barles (1680) United States Philadelphia

College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Historical Medical Library, GGa 53b

Bound in 1887 by Dr John Stockton Hough with skin he had removed from the thigh of Mary Lynch, who died in 1869 of trichinosis in Blockley Almshouse, Philadelphia Photograph (right)
De conceptione adversaria by Charles Drelincourt (1686) United States Philadelphia

College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Historical Medical Library, GGc 15.1

Bound by Dr John Stockton Hough with the tattooed wrist skin of a man who died at Philadelphia Hospital in 1869[31] Slim book at top right
Speculations on the mode and appearances of impregnation in the human female by Robert Couper (1789) United States Philadelphia

College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Historical Medical Library, GGa 33

Bound in 1887 by Dr John Stockton Hough with skin he had removed from the thigh of Mary Lynch, who died in 1869 of trichinosis in Blockley Almshouse, Philadelphia Binding and testimonial

Mutter Minute (video): Book Bound in Human Skin

An elementary treatise on human anatomy by Joseph Leidy (1861) United States Philadelphia

College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Historical Medical Library, Ad 14

Joseph Leidy's own copy, with his note: 'The leather with which this book is bound is human skin, from a soldier who died during the great Southern Rebellion.' Photograph (red spine label)
Des destinées de l'ame by Arsène Houssaye (circa 1885) United States Cambridge, Massachusetts

Harvard University, Houghton Library, FC8.H8177.879dc

Presented by Arsène Houssaye to the bibliophile Dr Ludovic Bouland of Strasbourg, who bound it in skin which he had removed from 'the back of the unclaimed body of a woman patient in a French mental hospital who died suddenly of apoplexy' Front cover

Ethical and legal issues

Popular culture

The binding of books in human skin is also a common element within horror films and works of fiction:


Television and cinema

Video games


  1. Megan Rosenbloom, A Book by its Cover: Identifying & Scientifically Testing the World's Books Bound in Human Skin, Watermark: Newsletter of the Archivists and Librarians in the History of the Health Sciences, volume XXXIX, number 3 (Summer 2016), page 22
  2. The Anthropodermic Books Project, home page, checked 10 September 2016.
  3. Google Ngrams Viewer for bibliopegy
  4. The Oxford English Dictionary places it in Frequency Band 2, for 'words which occur fewer than 0.01 times per million words in typical modern English usage. These are almost exclusively terms which are not part of normal discourse and would be unknown to most people. Many are technical terms from specialized discourses.' OED entry for bibliopegy, checked 1 September 2016.
  5. OED entry for bibliopegy, checked 9 September 2016.
  6. Merriam-Webster definition for bibliopegy, checked 9 September 2016.
  7. Thompson, Religatum de Pelle Humana, pages 140-142
  8. Merkwürdige Reisen durch Niedersachsen, Holland und Engelland, volume 2, pages 192-193
  9. Thompson, Religatum de Pelle Humana, page 135
  10. Jade Alburo, Scary Books from YRL, 31 October 2012
  11. UCLA library catalogue, call number DG975.M532 R2 1676
  12. The Grolier Club of the City of New York. Exhibition of silver, embroidered and curious bookbindings, April 16 to May 9, 1903 ([New York City]: The De Vinne Press, [1903]), exhibits 177-179 (pages 58-59).
  13. "Killer cremated after 180 years". BBC News. 17 August 2004. Retrieved 4 July 2007.
  14. 1 2 Thompson, Lawrence (April 1946). Human Skin. v.34(2). Bulletin of the Medical Library Association.
  15. Catalogue record and Digitised version
  16. Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh
  17. Frequently Asked Questions about Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife
  18. Books Bound in Human Skin; Lampshade Myth?
  19. Temple University Libraries and Charles L. Blockson, Catalogue of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection: A Unit of the Temple University Libraries, Temple University Press, 1990, p. 16. ISBN 0877227497
  20. "Poems bound up in a human skin". Canberra Times. 8 August 2011.
  21. Hertzberg, Edward (1933). Forty-four years as a bookbinder. Chicago: Ernst Hertzberg and Sons Monastery Hill Bindery. p. 43.
  22. Jeremy Dibbell, Garnet Book Images PhiloBiblos, 28 November 2007.
  23. Callum James, Leonard Smithers: Human Skin Binding, Front Free Endpaper (May 27, 2009)
  24. The Anthropodermic Book Project, The Science, checked 13 September 2016.
  25. Beth Lander, Fugitive Leaves
  26. Beth Lander, The Skin She Lived In: Anthropodermic Books in the Historical Medical Library
  27. John Hay Library.Frequently Asked Questions: Is it true the John Hay Library has books bound in human skin?
  28. Cole, Heather. "Caveat Lecter", Houghton Library Blog. June 4, 2014.
  29. Karen Beck (April 3, 2014). "852 RARE: Old Books, New Technologies, and "The Human Skin Book" at HLS". The Harvard Law School Library Blog. Retrieved April 3, 2014.
  30. Summer myth-busters tackle campus tall tales, Berkeley News.
  31. Carolyn Marvin, 'The body of the text: literacy's corporeal constant', Quarterly Journal of Speech 80(2) (1994), page 137
  32. Novák, Caterina (2013). "Those Very 'Other' Victorians: Interrogating Neo-Victorian Feminism in The Journal of Dora Damage" (PDF). Neo-Victorian Studies. 6 (2). ISSN 1757-9481. Retrieved 30 November 2015.
  33. H.P. Lovecraft, Dagon & Other Macabre Tales. Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1965, p. 153
  34. "Alice's ultimate weapon "The Holy Book of Flesh" is said to be bound from human skin".

Further reading

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