I love books. I have over six hundred of them in my library, and I’m still finding creative ways to cram more in even though I’m running out of space on my shelves. I especially love leather-bound books, though I don’t have too many of those (YA titles don’t usually get released with ooh la la fancy bindings like that.) There’s something warm and buttery about holding a hand bound volume — but what if a book you thought was simple moo cow hide was actually something a little more sinister?
One of the most famous examples of a book bound in human skin comes from the film, Evil Dead. The Necronomicon Ex Mortis had a nasty tendency of being activated whenever a teenager touched it, but this Book of the Dead is completely fictional. It was also said to have been written in blood, to add another layer of ick. H.P. Lovecraft, Chuck Palahniuk, and even the writers of Supernatural have all dabbled with the subject of human flesh bound books too.
The creators of Evil Dead must have had something historically legit in mind when they thought the Necronomicon up, because the practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy dates back to the 17th century: it was found most commonly among medical professionals who used the skin of cadavers to bind their anatomy texts. These books are described as looking and feeling no more peculiar than any normally bound book, but that’s not totally accurate. According to i09, “human leather has a different pore size and shape than pig or calf skin along with a bizarre waxy smell, allowing fraudulent books to be identified.”(1)
Harvard has unearthed three skin-bound books in its libraries, one belonging to a man who was flayed alive. It’s described as “delicate, stiff, and with wrinkled edges” and having the color of “an old banana.”(2) The discerning factor that verifies its origin can be found on its very last page, as there are no tattoos or visible markings that would suggest it came from the body of a human.
The book’s 794th and final page includes an inscription in purple cursive: “the bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Mbesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace.”
While I was in Boston last week, I took a Ghost Tour that led the group to a few famous sites, the second-to-last on the tour being the Boston Athanaeum. It’s a private library where Nathaniel Hawthorne often worked, and is home to a particularly interesting artifact: a pebbly-surfaced book bearing the name, Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est. It’s the 1837 memoir of a murderer, bank robber, and thief — The Highwayman: Narrative of the Life of James Allen alias George Walton.
It’s the recorded death-bed confession the author asked be delivered bound in his own skin to his last victim, a Mr. John Fenno, who was the only man who ever stood up to him. He intended the book as a token of respect.(3)
You can read a fair chunk of the book at the Boston Athanaeum website here as a PDF, which of course helps if you don’t actually want to touch a book bound in human leather.