On the history of books bound in human flesh

From "the chirurgeon's apprentice," a fascinating and squick-inducing blog/website devoted to chronicling "the horrors of pre-anaesthetic surgery," an entry about the history of books bound in tanned human skin. Snip from details about the image shown above:

And then there were books which claimed to be made from the human flesh but were, in fact, not. One example comes from the Wellcome Collection in London [left]. It is a curious little notebook which professes to be ‘made of Tanned skin of the Negro whose Execution caused the War of Independence’. Presumably, this refers to Crispus Attucks, a dockworker of Wampanoag who was the first person killed by the British during the Boston Massacre. Immediately following his death, Attucks was held up as an American martyr. As a consequence of its alleged origins, this notebook has become a symbol of the American Revolution.

More. And if you enjoy tweets about 17th-century surgery, you'll want to follow Lindsey Fitzharris, the medical historian behind the "Chirurgeon’s Apprentice" website. (via Vaughan Bell)



    1. That’s not a bad idea at all. Can the docs legally allow you to keep your amputated limb (or just the skin)? Common sense says you ought to be able to do whatever you like with it; it’s your leg, after all. But our litigious culture suggests the docs will want to treat the leg as human remains, which means it has to be disposed of in a specific way.

      I hope you get to keep it. See if you can do some scrimshaw with the bones, too. That would be amazing. If you could prep the bone correctly, you could even run a steel rod through it and make the most awesome prosthesis ever. Imagine that: YOUR femur, bleached and covered in scrimshaw, being used as a leg once again. Holy crap, man. If I ever lose a leg, that’s what I’m doing.

        1. Unless it’s done here in New Zealand, where in deference to Maori custom —they like the burial plot to contain all their mortal remains, even if they aren’t interred simultaneously— you can have any surgically removed tissue returned to you. So mtdna could have his leg back if he wished.

          1. Sorry, mtdna would get his amputated limb returned, not RJ. Why won’t the Edit function work for me?

          2. I think Orthodox Jews also like their burial plot to contain all of their body, and there are enough Orthodox Jews in the US that I imagine there’d be a mechanism to allow that.

        2. Not to mention if you ask for them, your surgeon will put an end to that post haste. I tried to get my tonsils with real enthusiasm. There was literally no way in their rule system to get them related to some infectious waste rules about disposal of body parts in my state. 

  1. Just this morning, I was lying awake in bed, wondering why I hadn’t read the word “squick” for a few weeks/months. 

    Thanks for fixing that detail.

  2.  Abdul Alhazred’s “intellectual property” attorney will be contacting you shortly.

  3.  The book that was bound out of William Burke’s skin is still on display at the Surgeon’s Hall Museum on the University of Edinburgh campus.  It was the high point of ny visit to the university last time I was in Edinburgh. 

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