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Pronounced /ænˌθrəʊpəʊˈdɜːmɪk/Help with pronunciation

West Yorkshire Police put out a macabre appeal in April 2006. A ledger had been found in the Headrow, one of the main streets in Leeds, presumably dumped there following a robbery. It had been written in French and dated from the 1700s. The weird part is that it was bound in human skin.

Surprisingly, though this is rare and remarkable, it isn’t unique. Archivists even have a name for it, anthropodermic bibliopegy, which, being translated from the decent obscurity of an ancient tongue, literally means no more than the binding of books in human skin. The first word is from Greek anthropos, a human being, plus derma, skin or hide; the second is made up of biblion, book, plus pegnunai, to fix — hence the art of binding books. One news report called it anthropodermic bibliophagy, an easy mistake to make, but unfortunately suggesting that people devoured the books instead (the last element being from Greek phagein, to eat — a bibliophagist is figuratively a voracious reader).

Libraries specialising in old books occasionally have examples. Anatomy texts seem to have been favourites, which were covered in skin taken from a dissected cadaver — suitably tanned first, of course. There was some slight fashion in the nineteenth century of binding the report of a murderer’s trial with his skin. The most famous British example is that of William Corder, hanged in 1828 for the murder of Maria Marten (still remembered by some as the Murder in the Red Barn); the museum in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk has an account of the trial bound in this way.

The account of William Corder's trial, bound in his own skin.
The account of William Corder’s trial, bound in his own skin

However, why an account book should be so treated is puzzling. Perhaps the owner had it covered in the skin of a defaulting debtor as a way of getting his pound of flesh?

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Page created 22 Apr 2006