Books bound in human skin

This weekend, the Associated Press published an interesting article about antique books bound in human skin, a relatively common practice in the 19th century. For example, the private Boston Athenaeum library has an 1837 edition of a highway robber's memoirs wrapped in his own skin. Brown University holds an anatomy book that, appropriately enough, is bound in human skin. From the article:

…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 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.

One copy of "The Dance of Death" dates to 1816 but was rebound in 1893 by Joseph Zaehnsdorf, a master binder in London. A note to his client reports that he did not have enough skin and had to split it. The front cover, bound in the outer layer of the epidermis, has a slightly bumpy texture, like soft sandpaper. The spine and back cover, made from the inner layer of skin, feels like suede.

Zaehnsdorf probably left the covers plain to showcase the material, Streit said.

Brown's other "Dance of Death" edition, done in 1898, is more elaborately decorated with inlays of black leather and a gold-tooled skull. But a closer examination reveals the pores of the skin's former owner.


UPDATE: BB reader Brian Frye points to a deeper article on the subject in the November 10 issue of Harvard Law School's newspaper, The Record. Link