There’s Something Horrifying Hiding Inside This Massachusetts Library
Ready for something that will truly make your skin crawl?
The Boston Athenaeum library has a very special book in its collection. It isn’t what the text contains that makes this book unlike any other…it’s what contains the text.
In 1837, the notorious highwayman James Allen was sentenced to death. After his execution, his autobiography was bound in Allen’s own human flesh.
If you pick up the tome, you’ll notice that the binding has a curious feel, sometimes described as “a slightly bumpy texture, like soft sandpaper.” The book is tan in color and bears the inscription “Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est.” The title of the book is a bit of a mouthful: the “Narrative of the Life of James Allen, alias Jonas Pierce, alias James H. York, alias Burley Grove, the Highwayman, Being His Death-bed Confession to the Warden of the Massachusetts State Prison.” As Allen could not read or write, his prison warden actually took dictation from Allen.
Anthropodermic bibliopegy is the practice of binding books in human skin, and it actually dates back hundreds of years. As late as the 1890s, some medical texts were bound in human skin – particularly the skin of notable patients. Brown University, Harvard, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and even the Cleveland Public Library have books that are bound with human skin.
The weirdest twist? James Allen actually asked to have his memoirs bound in his own skin. As a sign of respect for John Fenno Jr., the man who had accused him of attempted murder and the reason Allen was condemned to death, the highwayman asked that his hide-bound memoirs be given to Fenno. A descendant of Fenno eventually donated the book to the Boston Athenaeum. In a darkly humorous twist, the book of misdeeds was occasionally used to spank naughty children in the Fenno family.
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