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A Book of Human Flesh

Amongst a collection of medical oddities housed at the Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh lies a tattered pocketbook, no longer than the length of a man’s hand. It is dark brown—nearly black—with a pebbled texture and gold lettering that has begun to fade with age. Upon closer inspection, the words ‘EXECUTED 28 JAN 1829’ and ‘BURKE’S SKIN POCKET BOOK’ come into focus, revealing the item’s true origins.

This is a book bound in the flesh of William Burke, the notorious murderer. Between 1827 and 1828, Burke and his accomplice, William Hare, drugged and killed 16 people for the sole purpose of selling their bodies to the anatomist, Dr Robert Knox. Burke was eventually found guilty of the murders and hanged before (ironically) being dissected in Edinburgh Medical College.

Anthropodermic bibliopegy is the practice of binding books in human skin. Though extremely uncommon in modern times, the technique dates back to at least the 17th century. The practice is inextricably connected with the practice of tanning human skin, often done in certain circumstances after a corpse has been dissected.

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