JON KANEKO-JAMES reveals that anthropodermic bookbinding – the practice of covering books with human skin – was real and more mainstream than we realise
One of the most irritating scenes in all of horror is in The Devil Rides Out (1968) with Leon Greene and Christopher Lee.
Green’s character, Rex Van Ryn, touches a leather bound book and shudders. He turns to Christopher Lee who nods sagely and says, “Yes, bound in human skin.”
It’s a really annoying scene, because there are loads of books bound in human skin and I have it on good authority that you can’t tell the bloody difference between that and any other kind of leather. (Editor’s note: You can read about Jon’s other annoyance, the treatment of occult in film here.)
At least unless it has a tattoo on the cover saying, “I love Mum”.
Okay, first myth first: to my knowledge there are no books of magic, black or otherwise, bound in human skin. The reasons are simple common sense: for most of history any form of magic has been really VERY illegal. Necromancers and evokers couched their magic in highly pious and religious terms:
“I do invocate and conjure thee…by Beralanensis, Baldachiensis, Paulmachia… Powerful Princes… and Ministers of the Tartarean Abode … also, I, being made after the image of God, endued with the power from him, and created according unto his will, do exorcise thee by that most mighty and powerful name of God …” – Pseudo Solomon, The Goetia (circa. 1566)
In Necromancy, the procedures for getting divinations from the dead and having conversations with Spirits weren’t called spells, but ‘experiments.’
If you were caught, you could get dead and sent to hell in a time when people really, truly believed in it. Some sorcerers who got caught managed to get off with a lesser penalty, like being allowed to bury or burn their books. On the other hand the mystic Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for much, much less than demon summoning.
Enemies, Murderers and Medical Curiosities: the real books bound in human skin
Books bound in human skin are like a lot of things in History and Esoteric Studies: they might be thousands of years old, or they might have been dreamed up by some Victorian bankers in their lunch hour. The earliest book bound in human skin is a copy of the Dectrals (legal judgements from the Pope) from the 13th Century.
Binding in human skin took off in the French Revolution. They even produced a copy of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man bound with human skin in 1790. It was also around then that it became popular for bored sybarites to attend juicy trials and have their own personal transcript bound in the defendant’s skin after his execution. In fact, Doctor Johnson used the skin of a killer called James Johnson to bind the first copy of his Dictionary.
The largest number of books bound in human skin are Victorian. Cadavers could be hard to come by and grateful patients would often leave their bodies to a beloved medic in their wills. It was in this time when a collection of 17th Century gynecological essays were bound in human skin by a doctor from Paris. Dr. John Stockholm bound his four volume series of books on skin disease in the skins of people with the relevant diseases and Dr. Charles Humberd bound his seminal work on Gigantism in the skin of Ringling Brothers performer and Circus ‘giant’ pinky.
The only book related to magic bound in human skin I know of is a possibly apocryphal story about the French Astrologer Camille Flammarion. Having attracted the Sapphic attentions of a dying duchess, Flammarion proceeded with her book, only to receive a macabre gift: the now dead duchess’ skin, helpfully tattooed with the title and book plate!