On 3rd December 1817, Charles Smith was hanged on the Town Moor at Newcastle upon Tyne for “the barbarous and cruel murder of Charles Stewart at Ouseburn Pottery”. 1
The condemned man left instructions that his body be released to his wife for burial. This request was denied, and his body sent to be anatomised at Surgeon’s Hall, Newcastle. So far, so unremarkable. The bodies of many hanged criminals ended up under the anatomist’s knife in Britain at this time. But that was not the end of Charles Smith’s story. The actual fate of at least part of Charles Smith’s body was both peculiar and macabre.
Road to the gallows
The story began the previous year, 1816, when the pottery was declared bankrupt, and a sheriff’s officer was authorised to sell goods to pay off debts. On the night of the 4th of December, Charles Stewart, the elderly Keeper appointed by the Sheriff, was sleeping on the premises, his task, to guard the money from the sale. In the early hours of the morning, he was woken from his slumber by the sound of loud banging on the door. Opening it, he was faced with two ruffians, intent on robbery. He was attacked and beaten severely. Although he eventually managed to summon help, his injuries were too severe and after lingering for several weeks he died on Christmas Day, 1816.
Before he died, Stewart was interviewed and pointed the finger of blame at Irishman Charles Smith, a former employee at the pottery, in a dramatic deathbed confrontation. When accused, Smith denied everything, even though a bloody stick and blood-spattered clothing had been found at his lodgings. Some doubt was cast on Stewart’s ability to identify Smith, and Smith did obtain a brief stay of execution. Ultimately however, Stewart’s testimony, along with some damning circumstantial evidence, and a dash of contemporary prejudice against the Irish, sealed Smith’s fate. He was found guilty of wilful murder and publicly executed the following December. The second assailant was never identified. 2
And so ended the tragic life of Charles Smith.
On 3rd of October 1818 the Durham County Advertiser reported the following curiosity:
“Literary relic – An eminent collector and Antiquarian of Newcastle is possessed of a piece of the skin of the late Charles Smith, executed near the town last year for the murder of Charles Stewart, which he had washed, tanned and dressed for the purposes of binding a large paper copy of the murderer’s dying speech!!!” 3
I find the multiple exclamation marks interesting, while the eminent collector might find it acceptable to put human skin to this purpose, the author of the article clearly has his doubts.
The eminent collector and antiquarian in question, was likely to have been John Bell, an avid collector of books and coins, who ran a bookshop on Newcastle’s Quayside.4,5
The practice of binding books in human skin was hinted at in the ancient and Medieval periods. Some examples dating to the 16th and 17th century have survived, but the trend really grew in popularity, amongst certain sections of society, in the 19th century. But what was the motivation behind the practice?
There are several reasons why a book might be bound in human skin. In the early nineteenth century it was occasionally used as a post-mortem punishment for an executed criminal, often adjacent to dissection. Dissection had been an added post-mortem indignity for the executed person since the introduction of the Murder Act in 1752, which allowed the bodies of executed criminals to be publicly dissected (a boon to anatomy schools struggling to obtain cadavers). Both Charles Smith, and more famously, William Burke, half of the murderous duo Burke and Hare, were hanged, dissected, then had parts of their skin removed for book binding.
Binding a book in the skin of the condemned man was a post-mortem mortification with metaphysical consequences. At a time when many Christian’s believed you needed your body to remain whole in order to rise on the day of judgement, having part of your skin made into a pocket notebook or used to bind a copy of your Gallows Speech and clippings about your crime, might well prevent you from entering the Kingdom of Heaven. As an Irish Catholic, this may have been on Charles Smith’s mind when he entreated authorities to release his corpse to his wife, for Christian burial.
The practice of public dissection, in this context, is a cruel and unusual punishment, a staggering display of callousness in disregarding the religious beliefs and dignity of the poor and criminal classes who were most likely to suffer this fate.
Some books purported to be made of human skin were used for political propaganda, such as the unproven rumours that French Revolutionaries set up a macabre tannery at Meudon. The tannery was supposed to have specialised in producing a range of fashionable leather breeches, boots, and book bindings, all using human skin. A copy of the Constitution and Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, dating from 1793, and supposedly made of human skin, helped feed into the legend of blood thirsty Revolutionaries tanning the hides of their enemies. This legend was still being taken at face value well into the twentieth century, until academics began to look to the original source of the rumour, the rabidly pro-monarchist Abbot of Montgaillard (or possibly his equally monarchist son). 6,7
The infamous Swaatland parchment claims to be an eighteenth-century artefact, linked to the experiences of the real historic figure Luke Swatland. Swatland was captured by Native Americans, and later escaped and wrote of his experiences. The inscription on the piece of leather states that it was made from the skin of a ‘White Man taken by an Ingen, Scalped and skinned Alive[..]’ it went on to make the false claim that Native American’s were using the skin of Europeans as currency. Following testing by Megan Rosenbloom, the parchment proved to be made from cow hide, and was likely made at a much later date as a piece of racist propaganda to justify the treatment of Native Americans by settlers.8
Going back to the Charles Smith book for a moment, it is not known whether John Bell created the book for his own private amusement or as a commodity to sell. However, the fact that John Bell was a book collector is important, because, in the 19th century, in many cases books bound in human skin were made for collectors – enthusiastic bibliophiles with niche tastes in unusual and rare book bindings.
Collectors of such rare commodities invariably considered themselves to be gentlemen and often they were also medical men, as evidenced by the extensive research of Megan Rosenbloom. Many of the authenticated human skin books originated in the libraries of doctors and surgeons.
Medical men had two things in their favour – access to the raw materials, and clinical detachment.
Anthropodermic book binding can be seen as an example of clinical detachment taken to its extreme, with doctors forgetting the essential humanity of their patients, patient consent not being considered, and the unspoken trust between doctor and patient being breached almost irrevocably.
This idea of the gentleman collector is at odds with the popular image of human skin books. Most people’s first thoughts would probably run to HP Lovecraft’s ‘mad Arab’ Abdul al Hazred and his Necronomicon, and obsessive and insane occultists pouring over Grimoires of arcane knowledge. That or serial killers and Nazis. In short, people you would want to avoid at all costs, not your trusted GP or hospital doctor!
A matter of identity
While the matter of who made books of human skin, and why they did so, is fascinating. The question also remains as to whose skin was used?
Evidence would suggest that it was primarily the skin of the poorer classes, executed criminals and those who died in situations that left their bodies open to exploitation by medical men and collectors.
Very occasionally someone might volunteer, like unlucky highwayman James Allen, who asked that his memoirs be bound in his own skin.9 But that was a rare occurrence – in most cases the skin was obtained without consent or in direct opposition to the wishes of the deceased.
In cases where a book was bound in the skin of a criminal, such as William Burke or Charles Smith, we can be fairly sure of their identity. However, in many cases, particularly where the skin was obtained covertly in a medical setting, this is not possible, the identity of the unwilling donor left, quite literally, on the shelf.
One notable exception to this anonymity was uncovered by Beth Lander, the librarian at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, in the United States. She uncovered a tale of medical malpractice from over 150 years ago. In 1868, a young, up and coming doctor named John Stockton Hough, performed an autopsy on a twenty-eight-year-old woman who died of Tuberculosis at Philadelphia General Hospital. During her autopsy, Dr Hough decided to take a macabre souvenir of the event, in the form of skin from the woman’s thighs. He held on to his gruesome treasure for many years, but eventually he found a use for it. Hough had an impressive library, and what better than to use this rarest of materials to bind three of his favourite books – on women’s health (which seems a particularly ghoulish choice). Beth Lander was able to follow the clues left by Hough and identified the woman as being Mary Lynch, a twenty-eight-year-old, impoverished Irish widow. 10
Not everything you read is true
One glaring fact about many ‘human skin’ books is that they do not all stand up to scrutiny, this seems to be particularly common where the subject matter is overtly macabre or has a definite political or racial agenda to promote. This can be seen in the case of the Swaatland parchment, which, upon testing, proved to be cow hide, and this may also be true of the Constitution and Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, linked to the Meudon Tannery, which has yet to be tested.
But why have so many books claiming to be bound in human skin been taken at face value? One reason is clearly that these artefacts exert a morbid fascination. The other reason is that until recently, there was no fool proof, non-destructive way to authenticate them.
Books bound in human skin don’t scream at you, they look like any other book on the shelf. Previous testing consisted of looking at the binding under a microscope to examine the pores of the hide and compare them to human, pig, cow, etc. This method was not always accurate.
More modern techniques such as DNA testing are a no go because the tanning process destroys DNA, while repeated handling of the books over many years risks contaminating the sample and skewing the results.
All of that has changed recently, with the advent of peptide mass finger printing (PMF). This technique requires only a tiny sample of leather and can conclusively determine if a book is bound in human skin. The Anthropodermic Book Project, co-founded by Megan Rosenbloom, is currently testing as many alleged human skin books as possible using this technique. And while many books are not what they claimed to be, many others prove to be the genuine article.11
While unusual cases, like that of James Allen, show that occasionally people did choose this method of post-mortem memorialisation, most did not. Whether the skin of a condemned criminal or impoverished hospital patient, one thing is clear, the men who created these artefacts, did so with little regard to the wishes of the deceased.
This poses the question, should these books remain in museum and library collections? The curating and display of human remains is a challenging subject at the best of times, fraught with ethical, philosophical, and cultural dilemmas.
My view, is that they are a valuable resource that can help us explore broader subjects, such as how attitudes to race and class have changed over time, issues surrounding informed patient consent, and how the medical gaze, taken to its extreme, can depersonalise the patient.
Ultimately, these most macabre of artefacts can provide a window into a different time, a time when respectable gentlemen could blithely damn the criminal and the poor in the afterlife, and hide behind the clinical gaze, in search of that rarest most precious material to bind their books, human skin.
But what do you think?
As it happens, Bell never did bind his book in Smith’s skin, but instead fixed the sample of tanned flesh inside a rather ordinary half-bound volume (a leather spine, with darkly marbled covers), a particularly rare curio amongst newspaper clippings of the trial, commentary, and other ephemera. He even ended the book with a pen and ink sketch of a devil merrily playing the fiddle, above a dangling noose – gallows humour indeed.
The Charles Smith Book is held at Newcastle Central Library, it is available to view by appointment, but is currently featured as part of an exhibition that runs until the end of July 2022.
Edinburgh Surgeon’s Hall displays the pocketbook made from the skin of William Burke.
Sources and credits
I would like to thank Sarah at Newcastle Central Library, for facilitating my viewing of the fascinating human skin book relating to Charles Smith and answering my many questions.
In researching this post, I found the most knowledgeable and accessible writer and speaker on the subject of anthropodermic bibliopegy to be Megan Rosenbloom. I have in particular relied on her excellent book ‘Dark Archives’ as well as several online interviews and articles.
Bell, John, 1817(?) ‘The Particulars of the trial and Execution of Charles Smith by John W Bell’, Newcastle Central Library Special Collection.
Ocker, JW, 2020, Cursed Objects, Philadelphia
Rosenbloom, Megan, 2020, Dark Archives, New York
Rosenbloom, Megan, 2016, A Book by Its Cover | Lapham’s Quarterly (laphamsquarterly.org)
Xavier, Paddy, 24/11/2016, Murder in the Ouseburn and Books of Human Skin – lastdyingwords
- John Bell, ‘The Particulars of the trial and Execution of Charles Smith by John W Bell’
- Paddy Xavier, Murder in the Ouseburn and Books of Human Skin – lastdyingwords
- Megan Rosenbloom, A Book by Its Cover | Lapham’s Quarterly (laphamsquarterly.org)
- Megan Rosenbloom, Dark Archives
- JW Ocker, Cursed Objects
- Megan Rosenbloom, Dark Archives