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