I love irony. As a child I would always love reading or watching Tales from the Crypt because so many of the deaths that occurred within the stories would be ironic. The soap maker would fall into a vat of chemicals and be turned into bars of soap, a butcher will be shoved into a meat grinder and be sold as sausages, a baseball player would be dismembered and used as sporting equipment, and, well, you get the idea. Anyhow, I bring this up because today I will be writing about a very real author who ended up being the binding for his very own book.
The technical term for binding books in human skin is called anthropodermic bibliopegy and there are far more cases of this than you would think. The most common books to be bound in human skin were medieval human anatomy books. It turns out that people were far more literal back then. Another famous example is a copy of the Marquis de Sade’s Justine et Juliette bound in “tanned skin from female breasts.” And as truly disturbing as this all is there is still something undeniably fascinating about it. Currently, Illinois libraries are holding their summer reading programs under the theme “reading is delicious.” And for a final event many libraries are holding a competition where patrons construct edible books. If there were a book about sandwiches written in salami, mustard, and wheat bread I assume I’d be equally as fascinated with it as I am with a book about the human anatomy bound in flesh. There’s probably a good cannibal joke in there somewhere.
James Allen was a highwayman from Massachusetts who lived during the 1800’s. According to Wikipedia, Allen had a wide array of aliases including George Walton, Jonas Pierce, James H. York, and my personal favorite, Burley Grove. But for a man who had a seemingly fluid identity during his life James Allen made sure to set the record straight with his death. In 1833 Allen tried to rob a man named John Fenno, Jr. but Fenno resisted and eventually Allen was arrested. Allen was stuck by the Fenno’s bravery and decided to reward him for it with a book detailing his own adventures and ill deeds as a highwayman that would ostensibly end with Allen’s arrest.
Now although Allen is considered the author of his memoirs entitled The Highwayman he wasn’t able to do much of the writing. Allen’s stories and thoughts were written down by the warden of the prison as Allen would dictate them. Many consider his memoirs a sort of prolonged “death-bed-confession.” After Allen’s death in 1837 his body was sent to a hospital “where enough skin to cover a book was cut off and then delivered to a bookbinder, who dyed it gray.” Currently the book resides in the Boston Athenaeum where the cover reads Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est. which is Latin for Master of His Own Skin.
What I find so interesting about the Allen story is how he took control over the way he will be remembered. In our own culture we still haven’t found one singular way to dispose of ourselves. We bury corpses, spread ashes, stuff and display old friends, and even turn our loved ones into sparkling jewelry but Allen’s way is still more interesting. His own peculiar memorial literally contains his memories in a way that no other form has the ability to.
So what do you think? What is the weirdest form of binding you’ve ever heard of? Would you ever read a book bound in skin or would you be too squeamish? Please leave some comments below so that we can continue our conversation on anthropodermic bibliopegy, ironic deaths, and how you’re always going to think twice before picking up a leather bound book.