High on (Gross) History: Harvard Finds Books Bound with Human Skin

We normally associate shall we say “novel” uses of the human body—cannibalism, shrunken heads, wearing body parts as trophies—with exotic tribes and warrior groups. But creative body use just got a whole lot more Anglo and scholarly: turns out several books in Harvard University’s vast collection feature bindings of human skin.

Harvard librarians say they haven’t the “foggiest notion” whether there might be more human hide books in their shelves, but they have identified three books—on medieval law, Roman poetry and French philosophy respectively—whose casings seems to be of the person variety. The law book—which dates to 1605—includes an inscription in purple cursive stating (get ready for some real old timey English) “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.” Unclear who or what is the “Wavuma,” but we hope poor Jonas’ death was at least a speedy one. The other books likewise include annotations about being bound in human skin.

One curator conjectured that this practice of binding books with a person’s flesh probably served as a memento to the dead, similar to the use of a loved one’s hair to make jewelry in the 19th century.  “While it strikes us as macabre,” he said, “it is honoring and memorializing this man.” According to another library director, the first reported example of human-skin binding dates to a 13th century French Bible. One doctor in the 1800s who bound three medical volumes in the skin of a former patient claimed the material was functional: "relatively cheap, durable, and waterproof." Who knew?!

Harvard is not alone in its humanly books: among others, Brown University contains three, the University of Pennsylvania has a few specimens from the late 19th century, and UC Berkeley boasts a human-bound prayer book from 1676.

But the Boston Anthenaeum takes the cake, with a book called “The Highwayman: Narrative of the Life of James Allen alias George Walton.” The author of this little gem provided his ideas on the typeface of the pages, and his skin on the binding of the book. Facing execution for attacking another man, Walton requested that his memoir be bound in his own skin, and then presented to his victim as a token of his regret.

Epic as it is, we’re ok with letting that tradition stay in the past. I’ll take my skin to my cold hard grave, thank you.

Image: commons.wikimedia.org.

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