In a Nutshell
Back in the 19th century, some books were bound in a peculiar type of leather. Human skin, sourced from unfortunate and unwilling souls was used to bind medical books and personal journals. The practice is called Anthropodermic bibliopegy and was seemingly common from the 16th to the 19th century. Most of the books were bound by doctors who sourced the skin from their deceased patients or executed criminals. With the help of modern technology, we have identified a total of 18 books that are bound using human skin, but more are suspected to exist in private collections.
The Whole Bushel
The most famous example of Anthropodermic bibliopegy comes in the form of three books. These books belonged to Dr. John Stockton Hugh, who collected the skin from the thigh of a single female patient. Mary Lynch died under horrible parasitic conditions in 1869, a full 20 years before her skin made it on the binding of these three books. The books are about female health and reproductive systems. Although the books clearly state that the binding is made from human skin, historians are unsure why the doctor, at 23 years of age, decided to keep her skin and tan it. A popular theory is that doctors bound their books in the skin of their patients to immortalize them. The 19th-century doctors were surrounded by a mess of pain, confusion, and gore. In the book “The Birth of the Clinic”, the concept of a clinical gaze was first developed. A well-known phenomenon today, doctors became disassociated with the humanity of their patients. It is theorized that this led to a skew in ethics that resulted in the human skin being a revered binding instead of a perverse indulgence.
On the other side of the spectrum, the practice was seen as a punishment for criminals. During 1828 in Edinburgh, Scotland, William Burke killed over 16 people to sell to doctors as cadavers. Burke was sentenced to death, hanged and dissected publically. His skin was used to bind the dissecting doctor’s pocketbook which is now stored in the Surgeons Hall Museum in Edinburgh. There are some books that historians can’t explain. ‘The Dance of Death’ was bound in human leather at the turn of the 19th century and contains stories and meditations on the subject of death. A book of French Erotica is bound with the skin of a woman’s breast and indeed, has a nipple on the cover.
Testing for these books for validity has only been possible in recent years. Out of 46 rumored books, a mere 18 have proven to be valid. DNA testing is impossible, but scientists can deduce if the books are made from homo sapiens by testing (among other things) collagen levels. The law on these books is simple. As long as they are not displayed as points of human interest, keeping them for private museum collections and study is acceptable. These books come from all over the world, but seem to be predominantly European.