Photo in the News: Book Bound in Human Skin

Photo: book covered in human skin
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April 11, 2006—We've all heard of leathery skin, but this macabre object is the real thing: a book bound in human skin.

The 300-year-old ledger was found in downtown Leeds, England (map). A burglar apparently dropped the tome, police announced Saturday.

Human-skin books are rare. But they appear to have been not quite as rare during the French Revolution, which is why it's not surprising that the Leeds book is in French, says Anthony Bliss, curator of rare books at the University of California, Berkeley's Bancroft Library.

The Bancroft Library, Bliss added, has a book that was bound in skin during the French Revolution of the 1790s.

"[The cover] was put on a book that was over a hundred years old at the time," he said. "Ironically enough, it's a prayer book."

And no, there are no belly buttons, nipples, tattoos, or other distinguishing marks on the Bancroft book. The donor who gave the book to the library authenticated it by taking it to a dermatologist, Bliss said.

An Internet search will find many stories of criminals' hides being used to bind their own trial proceedings, or of people who, in their wills, requested that their memoirs be bound in their own skins.

Bliss cautions about accepting such stories on blind faith. For the most part, he said, "they're nothing but hearsay, from a scholar's position."

Making books from human skin rather than cow leather wouldn't have been all that difficult, Bliss added. That's because the leather is merely a veneer over a stiffer underlying backing.

"Leather for bookbinding isn't like shoe leather," he said. "It's about as thick as three pieces of paper."

Macabre or not, such objects are fascinating slices history. "We don't make history," Bliss said. "We document it. It's not up to us to suppress it."

But, he added, "what possessed anyone to do this is beyond me."

—Richard A. Lovett

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