By Storm Stoker, Technical Services Support Specialist
Originally published on the WSR Blog
On a dark and chilly December evening in Edinburgh, Scotland, I visited the Surgeons’ Hall Museums and found it deserted. I was looking in a glass case that held a pocketbook that stated it was “bound with William Burke’s skin.” William Burke and William Hare were a couple of entrepreneurial resurrection men in Victorian Edinburgh. They decided grave robbing to sell bodies to doctors was too much work, simply murdering someone and selling their corpse saved them all that digging. It is estimated they killed at least 16 people before they were caught. Hare turned state’s evidence on Burke who was hanged (1/28/1829) in front of a huge crowd of 25,000, his corpse was then publicly dissected and his skeleton displayed at the Anatomical Museum of Edinburgh Medical School where, you can still visit it today. His skin apparently was used to bind this gruesome souvenir. This strange visit to the museum is what led me to do more research on the topic. Why was this done and was this common?
According to some scholars, the earliest known anthropodermic book was a French Bible from the 13th century but most proven examples are from the late 16th through the 18th century. But WHY would anyone do such a macabre thing?
There were several reasons:
The Anthropodermic Book Project (ABP) is a project that hopes to create a census of all the anthropodermic bibliopegy and test them to confirm that they are in fact bound in human skin. Esteemed scientist from the fields of forensic anthropology, medical librarianship, and chemistry are working to verify whether books claiming to be bound in human skin actually are. So far their tally runs as follows:
There are many libraries that have anthropodermic bibliopegy, in addition to those mentioned above. For a current full list of confirmed skin books click here.
Finally, what are the ethics around keeping these books in a library or museum? Are these books considered human remains, if so how should the remains be dealt with? Do modern medical guidelines apply? While the Society of American Archivists and other professional associations have no approved policies for dealing with human remains of this type, the library field is committed to working on best practices for handling sensitive materials like anthropodermic books. No one has all the answers yet, it will likely be an evolving issue for many years to come.
I totally understand if some of you want to stick with your e-readers!
Resources and Further Reading
Anthropodermic Bibliopegy. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropodermic_bibliopegy
Association of College and Research Librarians. “Code of Ethics for Special Collections Librarians,” RBMS—Rare Books & Manuscripts Section, October 2003, available online at http://rbms.info/standards/code_of_ethics/
Davis, Simon. Let’s Talk About Binding Books with Human Skin. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/exm3bk/binding-books-with-human-skin-135
Fleischaker, Julia. Books Bound in Human Skin Are More Common Than You Think.” Mobylives. https://www.mhpbooks.com/books-bound-in-human-skin-are-more-common-than-you-think/
Gordon, Jacob. “In the Flesh? Anthropodermic Bibliopegy Verification and Its Implications.” RBM, https://rbm.acrl.org/index.php/rbm/article/view/9664
Schuessler, Jennifer. Harvard Confirms Book Is Bound in Human Skin. https://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/06/05/harvard-confirms-book-is-bound-in-human-skin/
Society of American Archivists “Code of Ethics for Archivists,” SAA Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics, (revised 2012), available online at http://www2.archivists.org/statements/saa-core-values-statement-and-code-of-ethics#code_of_ethics
Thuras, Dylan. Boston Athenaeum Skin Book. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/boston-athenaeum-skin-book