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  • Writer's pictureScott Glazier

Judging Books by their Covers

Wotcher, Los Angeles— here on the apples and pears of Speakeasy Tattoo it’s your mate, Astor, taking another swing at 19th century Britain. But this time, we’re not talking kings and princes. We will begin instead with the notorious serial killer, William Burke.

The year is 1828, and the streets of Edinburgh have been terrorized by a ten month murder spree, committed by William Burke and his pal William Hare. You see, Edinburgh was at the, forgive the pun, cutting edge of anatomical study, but there was an inconvenient shortage of corpses for dissection. As a result, body snatchers (also poetically called “resurrection men”) did a fairly lucrative trade on freshly-buried and then subsequently unburied bodies, sold to the anatomical schools on the sly. This was not how Burke and Hare got into the grave robbing business, though. It began on 1827, when one of Hare’s tenants at his lodging house suddenly died, while still owing £4 in unpaid rent. Burke and Hare decided to stow the stiff under a bed, bury a coffin full of bark scraps in his place, and then sell the body to a professor at Edinburgh University, in order to recoup that £4 loss. Initially they asked for one Professor Alexander Monro (remember that name, he comes back later), but were directed instead to Professor Robert Knox. Knox paid them 7 pounds and 10 shillings for the specimen, and told them to come back if they should ever find themselves in possession of another body in need of disposal. £7 10s was a significant amount of money in 1827, roughly equivalent to five weeks’ wages for a skilled tradesman, and so Burke and Hare found themselves with a new side hustle. However, unlike colleagues in their field, they determined that simply waiting for people to die and then digging them up was too much faff, and took too long. Instead, they would make their own corpses. Out of living people.

Together they would murder sixteen people, likely with the knowledge of their wives. After each killing, they would close the body in a tea chest and sell it to Professor Knox, at a premium of £10 a head (approximately £1115.00 in today’s money). The professor appreciated how fresh the bodies were, and pointedly did not ask any questions about their provenance.

Eventually, the pair were caught, by tenants at Burke’s lodging house who were looking for a misplaced pair of stockings and instead found a freshly-murdered corpse. They immediately went to inform the police, and soon after, the police descended upon the anatomical dissecting rooms at Edinburgh University, to find that very same body there. Hare turned king’s evidence and squealed on Burke in exchange for immunity for himself and his wife, and at the end of the trial, Burke was handed an unusual sentence. Not only would he hang, as was customary for murderers, but the judge decreed that he should be publicly dissected, as his victims were, and that his skeleton should be preserved, “in order that posterity may keep in remembrance [his] atrocious crimes”.

The anatomist responsible for the dissection was Professor Alexander Monro. Remember I said he’d come back? But in addition to the dissection, and the preservation of the skeleton, Professor Monro did the judge one better, and preserved a section of Burke’s skin, which was tanned, and turned into a pocketbook. This pocketbook is on display today, in the Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh. The front of the pocketbook is embossed, as any leather-bound book might be, and reads “BURKE’S SKIN POCKET BOOK”. The back reads “EXECUTED 28 JAN’Y 1829”. So, here is an example of a design being etched permanently into human skin, without tattooing.

It is not a lone example, though. Several examples of books bound in human skin exist throughout the world. To the best of my knowledge, the record for the largest collection of these goes to the Historical Medical Library in Philadelphia, which owns five human skin books. The practice of binding a book in human skin is called anthropodermic bibliopegy—try to work that into a conversation with your friends— and historically, it has been the prerogative of doctors, predominantly in the 19th century. Some of these, like Burke’s, were made as a punishment toward the skin’s owner, but others were simply curiosities. Three of the five books in the aforementioned Philadelphia collection were bound in the skin of one Mary Lynch, a poor young woman who died of tuberculosis and trichinosis in an almshouse in 1869, at the age of 28. Her thighs were skinned by her doctor, John Stockton Hough, who tanned the flesh in a chamber pot, and then bound the three volumes in this leather. All three are medical volumes on women’s health, specifically on conception and childbirth. Similarly, a treatise on female virginity, bound in the skin of an unknown woman and then dyed with sumac berries, exists in the Wellcome Collection in London (The Wellcome Collection is also home to a rather large number of specimens of tattooed human skin, most collected by a single French surgeon with an obsession. A possible opportunity for a future blog entry from me). Another bound in the skin of a criminal is the memoir of highwayman James Allen, who, rather than being punished with anthropodermic bibliopegy like Burke was, actually requested that his skin be used in this way, and that the book be gifted to John Fenno, a man who successfully fought off the highwayman’s attack and thus earned his respect. This book is in the collection of the Boston Athenaeum.

Alongside these true human skin books, there have of course been books rumored to have been anthropodermic, but which, in recent years, have turned out to be bound in animal skins instead. Research is currently underway to identify genuine human skin books, spearheaded by Megan Rosenbloom of Los Angeles’s own USC Norris Medical Library, who, alongside Daniel Kirby, Richard Hark, and Anna Dhody, uses peptide mass fingerprinting to test the leather of supposed human skin books to determine their authenticity. The Anthropodermic Book Project has so far tested 31 suspected human skin books, of which, 18 were proved to be of human origin.

Our tattoos may be permanent, but only to our own lifetimes. A book bound in human skin, however, can long outlast a single human lifespan, and can educate and intrigue for centuries. Can we, like James Allen, put ‘being bound as a book’ down in our death plan, eschewing burial or cremation? Ask your 19th century doctor if anthropodermic bibliopegy is right for you.


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