Wednesday, June 07, 2006

From Writer to Reader: The Darker Side of Bibliophilia

Long time Alcuin Society director and seasoned bibliophile, Dr. Richard Hopkins, has kindly volunteered to contribute news and observations from the world of books to this blog. Look for his contributions, which will be regularly posted under the heading, "From Writer to Reader."

Here is his first post:

The Darker Side of Bibliophilia: Books Bound in Human Skin
(Reader’s Discretion Is Advised)

Over the last while I have discovered not one but two separate articles on books bound in human skin or “anthropodermically bound books.” The first of these is from M.L. Johnson, an Associated Press writer, and was found on I quote here from the article:
Brown University’s library boasts an unusual anatomy book. Tanned and polished to a smooth golden brown, its cover looks and feels no different from any other fine leather.

But here’s its secret: the book is bound in human skin.

A number of prestigious libraries – including Harvard University’s – have such books in their collections. While the idea of making leather from human skin seems bizarre and cruel today, it was not uncommon in centuries past, said Laura Hartman, a rare book cataloger at the National Library of Medicine in Maryland and author of a paper on the subject.

The best libraries then belonged to private collectors. Some were doctors who had access to skin from amputated parts and patients whose bodies were not claimed. They found human leather to be relatively cheap, durable and waterproof, Hartman said.

In other cases, wealthy bibliophiles may have acquired the skin from criminals who were executed, cadavers used in medical schools and people who died in the poor house, said Sam Streit, director of Brown’s John Hay Library.”
The other article is by Dan Alban and is entitled “Books Bound in Human Skin: Lampshade Myth?” What follows are two excerpts from that article:
Among the most unusual examples of the phenomenon is the autoanthropodermic binding of the Highwayman: Narrative of the Life of James Allen alias George Walton, the confessions of a highwayman bound in the author’s own skin. The cover bears the inscription “HIC LIBER WALTONIS CUTE COMPACTUS EST” (This book by Walton bound in his own skin). Facing the gallows, Walton specified that a copy of his memoir be bound in his own skin and given to John A. Fenno, a man whom Walton had attempted to rob on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Fenno had impressed Walton by bravely resisting the robbery attempt, weathering a gunshot wound, and assisting in bringing Walton to justice. After Walton’s execution, the book was delivered to Fenno, and his ancestors eventually donated it to the Boston Athenaeum, where it remains today...

In My Life With Paper, master book designer Dard Hunter tells of being hired by a young widow to bind a volume of letters dedicated to her late husband in his skin. Hunter later learns that the widow has remarried and wonders whether her second husband sees himself as volume two. Hunter concludes, ‘Let us hope that this was strictly a limited edition!’

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