There’s more than one way to skin a book

The history of a bizarre book binding practice — Anthropodermic bibliopegy.

Mike Selby

Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias Hispaniae (Practical Questions about the Laws of the King of Spain) is one of the older books residing in Harvard’s Law Library, having been published in 1605. Although Harvard has over 200,000 items in its Law Library’s rare book room, this one is of particular interest, due to an inscription found on the book’s last page:

“The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright … it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace.”

That’s right, this 400-year-old book of Spanish law was so dear to Jonas Wright, that his friend had it bound in Wright’s own skin.  Gruesome, to say the least.

But is it true?

Anthropodermic bibliopegy is the scientific name of binding books in human skin. While numerous books throughout history have been thought to have been bound this way, many academics thought (or at least hoped) this practice was a myth. Modern DNA evidence has recently proven that certain books are indeed covered in human epidermis. Yuk.

One is A True and Perfect Relation of the Whole Proceedings Against the Late Most Barbarous Traitors, Garnet a Jesuit and His Confederates, which details Father Henry Garnet’s role in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot.  Executed in 1606, Garnet’s skin was used to bind a book about his crimes. A pattern of wear spots on this books cover resemble Father’s Garnet’s face, which only makes this creepy item creepier.

The Boston Athenaeum (an independent public library) has a copy of 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, another book bound in human skin.  James Allen himself requested that after his execution in 1837 a copy of his memoirs be bound in own skin. Request granted.

Exeter’s Westcounty Studies Library owns a copy of The Poetical Works of John Milton, bound in the what used to be George Cudmore’s skin, before he was executed for poisoning his wife in 1852.  Below the title page of this book a note states whose skin was used to bound this work, and why.  Records show Cudmore’s body was sent to a medical school for use; it is unknown how his skin came to adorn a book.

Around the same time and place, a teenager named John Horwood threw a rock at his ex-girlfriend, hitting her in the the right temple. Taken to the hospital, she was examined by a senior surgeon named Richard Smith. Dr. Smith felt the only treatment was to drill a hole into her skull to relieve the swelling.  After the poor girl died, Horwood was hung for her murder. Smith refused to let Horwood’s family bury him, deciding to bind a book of his own poetry with Horwood’s skin instead.  (This book, which still contained the tanner’s invoice in it, was kept at the Bristol Records Office until 2011, when Horwood’s great-great-great-grandniece was allowed to bury his remains.)

Which brings us back to Jonas Wright and his book of Spanish laws. Just to be sure, Harvard submitted the book to cutting edge peptide mass fingerprinting analysis last April. The results confirmed that their copy of Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias Hispaniae is indeed bound by the skin of Jonas Wright.

Providing Jonas Wright was a sheep.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library


Just Posted

A tent housing a mobile vaccination clinic. (Interior Health/Contributed)
Over 5K jabbed at Interior Health mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinics

The clinics have made stops in more than 40 communities since launching last week

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about B.C.’s plan to restart the province during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Interior Health COVID-19 cases falling slower than the rest of B.C.

More than a third of provincial cases announced Thursday came from the Interior

Students at Creston Valley Secondary School put together an art installation of a replica residential school room. (Photo by Kelsey Yates)
Creston students create art installation of residential school room

The replica was decorated with a small bed, school uniform, and notes written with pleas for help

A tent housing a mobile vaccination clinic. (Interior Health/Contributed)
Second dose vaccinations accelerating throughout region: Interior Health

To date, more than 675,000 doses have been administered throughout the region

It happened this week in 1914

June 13 - 19: Compiled by Dave Humphrey from the archived newspapers… Continue reading

Cranbrook Arts has opened the doors of their  new gallery space to the public with their inaugural exhibit, Kootenay’s Best.
‘Kootenay’s Best’ opens Cranbrook Arts’ new gallery

This exhibit has been in the works for the past several months and features the work of more than 50 emerging and established artists from across the Kootenays

RCMP crest. (Black Press Media files)
Fort St. John man arrested after allegedly inviting sexual touching from children

Two children reported the incident to a trusted adult right away

Barbara Violo, pharmacist and owner of The Junction Chemist Pharmacy, draws up a dose behind vials of both Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines on the counter, in Toronto, Friday, June 18, 2021. An independent vaccine tracker website founded by a University of Saskatchewan student says just over 20 per cent of eligible Canadians — those 12 years old and above — are now fully vaccinated. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
At least 20% of eligible Canadians fully vaccinated, 75% with one dose: data

Earlier projections for reopening at this milestone didn’t include Delta variant

This undated file photo provided by Ernie Carswell & Partners shows the home featured in the opening and closing scenes of The Brady Bunch in Los Angeles. Do you know the occupation of Mike Brady, the father in this show about a blended family? (Anthony Barcelo/Ernie Carswell & Partners via AP, File)
QUIZ: A celebration of dad on Father’s Day

How much do you know about famous fathers?

Emily Steele holds up a collage of her son, 16-year-old Elijah-Iain Beauregard who was stabbed and killed in June 2019, outside of Kelowna Law Courts on June 18. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
Kelowna woman who fatally stabbed teen facing up to 1.5 years of jail time

Her jail sentence would be followed by an additional one to 1.5 years of supervision

Cpl. Scott MacLeod and Police Service Dog Jago. Jago was killed in the line of duty on Thursday, June 17. (RCMP)
Abbotsford police, RCMP grieve 4-year-old service dog killed in line of duty

Jago killed by armed suspect during ‘high-risk’ incident in Alberta

The George Road wildfire near Lytton, B.C., has grown to 250 hectares. (BC Wildfire Service)
B.C. drone sighting halts helicopters fighting 250 hectares of wildfire

‘If a drone collides with firefighting aircraft the consequences could be deadly,’ says BC Wildfire Service

A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a vaccination site in Vancouver Thursday, March 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
NACI advice to mix vaccines gets varied reaction from AstraZeneca double-dosers

NACI recommends an mRNA vaccine for all Canadians receiving a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine

A aerial view shows the debris going into Quesnel Lake caused by a tailings pond breach near the town of Likely, B.C., Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Updated tailings code after Mount Polley an improvement: B.C. mines auditor

British Columbia’s chief auditor of mines has found changes to the province’s requirements for tailings storage facilities

Most Read