Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Anthropodermic Bibilopegy

When I was in Junior High, I was kind of obsessed with this series of books called Lone Wolf that were kind of like fantasy-rock Choose Your Adventures. Yes, I was a big dork and I am deserving of your ridicule. But anyway, I distinctly remember how the last book I read featured a library curated by evil monks or wizards or demons which boasted a collection of books bound in human flesh. In the story, the books radiated intense negative psychic energy, and I remember thinking that the idea of binding volumes in human leather was indeed pretty freaky and evil. This passage and the impression it made on my teenage self came back to mind when I discovered a little over a year ago that books like this actually exist.

Binding books in human skin

The practice of binding books in human skin is known as anthropodermic bibliopegy. Unsurprisingly, the tanning and binding process isn't all that different than the one employed using calf, goat or sheepskin, and it is made possible by the fact that in bookbinding only a thin veneer of leather is used over the stiff pasteboard backing. In an article about an edition of "the Dance of Death," bound in human skin in 1893 and currently housed in Brown University's John Hay Library, the front cover clothed in the outer layer of the epidermis is described as having "a slightly bumpy texture, like soft sandpaper" whereas the back cover bound in the inner layer of skin is soft and smooth like suede. One can sometimes make out the skin's pores, and some of these books display the former owner’s tattoos.


The creation of books and parchment from human skin may have originated in the Middle Ages when Europeans were known to preserve the body parts of saints and other notable persons as memorials: for example, the most revered holy relic in Siena’s Basilica di San Domenico is the head of St. Catherine (1347-1380), while in Florence’s Museum of the History of Science alongside Galileo’s (1564-1642) telescopes one of his fingers is on display.

Today, the oldest extant examples of anthropodermic bindings date back to the 1600s, but the practice became more common during the French Revolution (1789-1799) probably due to the abundance of corpses piling up. The dermis of victims of the terror was, somewhat ironically, used to bind copies of Enlightenment texts such as Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and the French Constitution. In the 19th century, human leather bound books were objects of pride for wealthy collectors who might use the hide of executed criminals, dissected cadavers, and those who died in poor houses.

Present day examples

Today the number of surviving books bound in human flesh number somewhere in the hundreds. The most common examples are anatomy books clothed in the skin of dissected cadavers and memoirs which were posthumously bound in the author’s flesh in accordance with instructions found in his will. Sometimes, as occurred in the case of William Corder, the perpetrator of the famous Red Barn Murder, an executed criminal’s hide was used to bind the record of his trial.

Many of these artifacts can currently be found in prestigious libraries. Among the most interesting, Harvard University’s Langdell Law Library has a treatise on Spanish law (Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias Hispaniae) in its rare books section bearing the inscription:

The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my deare friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King btesa 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.

According to a book I found online published in 1897, the “Wavuma” were an African tribe who inhabited a chain of islands in Lake Victoria.

The Boston Athenaeum currently houses a book entitled “Narrative of the Life of James Allen alias Jonas Pierce, alias James H. York, alias Burley Grove, the Highwayman, Being His Death-Bed Confession to the Warden of the Massachusetts State Prison.” Before he was hanged, this early 19th-century American highwayman who was also known as George Walton instructed that the memoir should be bound in his own hide and delivered to John A Fenno, a man who had impressed the criminal with his bravery by resisting a robbery attempt and bearing a gunshot wound.

Finally, in the French town of Juvisy-sur-Orge, the library of Camille Flammarion’s (1842-1925) observatory contains a copy of the astronomer’s book Les terres du ciel voyage astronomique sur les autres mondes et descriptions des conditions actuelles de la vie sur les diverses planetes du systeme solaire (“The worlds of the heavens: astronomical voyage to other worlds and description of the current conditions of life on the various planets of the solar system”) bound in the flesh of a woman. According to legend, the donor was a countess who was enamored with Flammarion and who died of tuberculosis. For more information on anthropodermic bookbinding check out this excellent article published in the Harvard Law Record.

Nazi lampshades

On an even more morbid note, anthropodermic bibliopegy is related to the rumors that the Nazis made lampshades out of human skin. Most accounts of lampshades made from victims’ skin center on the Buchenwald concentration camp managed by Karl Otto Koch from 1937 to 1941 with his second wife Ilse Koch – whose sadism earned her the nickname “the Witch of Buchenwald” – by his side. Although Buchenwald was not an extermination camp, a great many prisoners were executed or killed in experiments using human subjects, while others died of hunger, exhaustion or diseases like typhoid due to unsanitary conditions.

During the holocaust, the Nazis were sometimes known to keep gruesome souvenirs from the people they butchered. Kenneth Kipperman, an expert on these artifacts, extensively researched the claims that lampshades were made out of victims’ skin. He discovered that Ilse Koch did indeed preserve patches of skin from prisoners bearing tattoos as keepsakes (and may have had some of them killed precisely for this purpose), but he found no hard evidence that they were ever used as lampshades. Thus the Straight Dope declares that the lampshades are likely a myth.

Image: Account of William Corder's trial bound in his own skin on display at Moyse's Hall museum in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk


Josie said...

i loved the choose your own adventure books. you forgot the most famous book bound in skin- The Book of the Dead from The Evil Dead!!!

Meeg said...

Oh right, wasn't that also called the Necronomicon? I need to watch those movies.

The Black Rabbit of Inlé said...

Interesting, but your simple acceptance of atrocity myths at Buchenwald is naive. Kipperman also believes the Nazi Shrunken Heads are genuine. He's a kook not an expert.

Were you aware the footage of the humanskin lampshade and NSH at Buchenwald was directed by 'Some Like it Hot' director Billy Wilder?

Meeg said...

If you actually read the post, it states that the human skin lampshades are probably a myth (a conclusion Kipperman reached), and it also notes that Buchenwald was not an extermination camp. At the same time I think there's a wealth of evidence that the Nazis kept grizzly souvenirs made from the body parts of the people they slaughtered.

The Black Rabbit of Inlé said...

>>>> "I think there's a wealth of evidence that the Nazis kept grizzly souvenirs made from the body parts of the people they slaughtered."

There's an abundance of actual evidence of *trophy hunting* by the US troops who fought in the Pacific.
Accept any *actual* evidence of course.

The Nazis are alleged to have made:

Human hair socks and mattresses. Human skin: lamp shades, table cloths, riding whips, string, coat-hangers, bound books as, saddles, riding britches, gloves, house slippers, ladies' hand bags, bound copies of Mein Kampf, shrunken-human-head whip handles, book-ends, table ornaments, and Himmler's had table's and chairs fashioned from humans body parts.

Where exactly is the "wealth of evidence" you "think" exists for these ghastly crimes?

Meeg said...

Extracting gold teeth and dental work from the mouths of victims to melt them down for the precious metals. This is widely documented.

Experiments with making soap from rendered human fat. This was mentioned by witnesses at Nuremberg

If you want to deny the holocaust do so elsewhere.