07 Jan 2006

Books Bound in Human Skin

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William Corder's Trial
William Corder’s Trial, bound in William Corder’s skin

A Boston Globe article exploits a fairly well-known bibliographic curiosity to provoke some public shock:

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 library has three books bound in human skin — the anatomy text and two 19th century editions of “The Dance of Death,” a medieval morality tale.

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Bibliophile publications, and the literature of the supernatural, sometimes feature colorful stories of rare older books, particularly grimoires (i.e., instruction manuals for practicing black magic), purportedly bound in human skin (usually that of a virgin slave), but real examples seem to be mostly unique Victorian and Edwardian exhibition bindings of anatomical texts or avant garde literature.

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The above story probably came about via a reading of this one from the Harvard Law School Record.

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