The Wellcome Library has recently acquired a fine example of a book bound in human skin. These are not as uncommon as may be generally thought, and many rare book libraries have examples. Until Nazi Germany brought the practice into particular disrepute, it seems to have been regarded as macabre rather than repellent. One common practice was to bind accounts of murder trials in the murderer’s skin, sometimes as a by-product of the use of their bodies for anatomical dissection. Bristol Royal Infirmary, for example, has an account of the trial, execution and dissection of John Horwood in 1821 bound in his skin, and a similar volume on the trial of William Corder, executed in 1828 for the murder of Maria Marten (the Red Barn murder) is in a museum in Bury St Edmunds. In both cases the skin was prepared by a local surgeon.
As medical men had unrivalled opportunities for obtaining human skin, it is not surprising that many recorded examples are medical books or were commissioned by doctors. The Wellcome Library’s new acquisition is a collection of gynaecological essays by various authors, beginning with Séverin Pineau’s treatise on virginity, pregnancy and childbirth, De integritatis et corruptionis virginum notis (Amsterdam, 1663). It was bound by the distinguished Paris binder Marcellin Lortic for Dr Ludovic Bouland (d. 1932), a native of Metz, who took his MD at Strasbourg in 1865 and practised in Paris. The Wellcome Library has several letters by him, in one of which, written in 1888, he looks forward to having relief from the pressures of work and more time to pursue his collecting interests. In 1893 he founded the French society for collectors of bookplates and artistic bindings and served as president until 1907.
The book has inserted at the front a note by Dr Bouland, explaining that he felt that it deserved a binding to match its subject matter and that he had therefore had it bound in a piece of woman’s skin which he had tanned himself with sumach. He probably enjoyed showing it to visitors: in 1910 the writer Paul Combes reported it to the journal Intermédiaire des chercheurs et curieux, with the additional information that Dr Bouland had obtained the piece of skin when he was a medical student, from the body of a woman who had died in the hospital at Metz.
More recently the book was owned by the obstetrician and book collector Alistair Gunn (1903–70), a regular user of the Wellcome Library, whose collection was sold at Bonham’s in 1979. It was bought by the founder of the London Dungeon as a possible exhibit, but she kept it herself and decided last year that it was time to find it a permanent home. The Library already has two books allegedly in human skin, acquired in the 1920s, but both are rather dubious – the Library’s head of conservation in 1981 decided that one was almost certainly wild boar! This new acquisition has the advantages of Dr Bouland’s authenticating inscription and a good record of provenance. It is attractively bound by a distinguished binder, and is a worthy addition to the Library’s specimens of book history.