My body is a book and you’ve been thumbing every page—Les Savy Fav

William Burke made a career out of corpses. Over ten months in 1828, Burke and his accomplice William Hare murdered sixteen people, selling the cadavers to Edinburgh anatomist Ronald Knox for the purposes of dissection. Following the pair’s arrest, Hare turned King’s evidence, and Burke was sentenced to death. The day after his execution by hanging, Burke’s body was publicly dissected, proving if nothing else that anatomists have a keen sense of irony.

The spectators in the anatomy theatre that day were riotous, and the behaviour of the participants was more ghoulish than scientific. One attendee dipped a quill into Burke’s blood and wrote 'This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. This blood was taken from his head.' Still more grotesque was the fate of Burke’s skin, which was tanned and used to bind a small notebook, which remains on display at Edinburgh’s Surgeon’s Hall Museum. The notorious William Burke literally became part of the strange tradition of anthropodermic bibliopegy: the binding of books with human skin.

The human body readily lends itself to metaphor. To Descartes it was a machine; to the Apostle Paul it was God’s temple; to John Mayer it is, banally, a 'wonderland'. Entire poetic oeuvres have developed around clusters of somatic metaphors: Whitman, for instance, singing the body electric.

Skin, the aspect of our self that most closely interacts with—and is exposed to—our environment, is the source of various appropriately superficial metaphors. One can be 'thin-skinned' or 'hide-bound'; a person can get 'under one’s skin'; beauty may be dismissed as 'skin-deep'.

These metaphors emphasise skin’s knowability, its literal superficiality. We 'read' skin: along with hair it is our most changeable physical feature, a visible record of our lives. Skin’s tactility is part of how we interact with our fellow humans. The clasping of hand in hand and the pressing of lips to cheek, establishes intimacy; the stroking of a person’s softer, more private skin is the privilege of the lover. Skin encases us, protects our internal structures, but from our subjective viewpoint it is one of our main sensory connections to the world, allowing us to read our environment. Skin, to take the metaphor in an obvious direction, is both text and reader.

Naturally, the disfigurement or removal of skin is a source of horror. Flaying is feared not only because of the suffering involved, but because it is the ultimate denuding act, the stripping of a person’s surface to expose the more or less interchangeable collection of fat, muscle and organs beneath. The horror of a Hannibal Lecter or a Leatherface derives partly from their deliberate violation—and reappropriation—of a person’s skin, and by extension individuality.

Little wonder that the notion of anthropodermic bibliopegy is generally apprehended with revulsion. Human skin-bound books in horror literature and cinema are used to suggest boundless evil and an occult disregard for the sanctity of the human body. A demonic spell-book is one thing, but a demonic spell-book bound with human skin and inked with blood, like the grotesque Necronomicon Ex-Mortis in the Evil Dead trilogy, suggests a different order of malevolence.

In real life, anthropodermic bibliopegy was carried out for a variety of reasons. Often, as in the case of William Burke, it was a matter of post-mortem punishment. Father Henry Garnet, a party to the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, was executed and his skin used to bind a record of his offenses and trial. More practically, nineteenth century anatomy textbooks were occasionally bound with the skin of dissected corpses—an example of extreme adherence to the principle of waste not, want not. In a macabre marriage of form and content, the breast skin of female cadavers was used to bind copies of de Sade’s Justine et Juliette. One copy even features intact nipples.

The internet is rife with 'believe it or not' accounts of anthropodermic bibliopegy, and it is difficult to get a sense of how prevalent it was. One website unconvincingly suggests the practice peaked around the time of the French Revolution, 'when a fresh supply of bodies was always available'. Fakes have been identified, including a book long considered one of the earliest examples of human skin binding: a 17th century Spanish law book held in Harvard’s rare book collection. The binding—supposedly the skin of a man flayed alive by an African tribe, and described appetisingly as 'subdued yellow, with sporadic brown and black splotches like an old banana'—was recently revealed to be boring old sheepskin.

Inevitably, the modern mind moves from anthropodermic bibliopegy to tales of the Nazis producing furniture, soap, and other items from the remains of their victims. Ilse Koch, 'The Witch of Buchenwald', was rumoured to have created shrunken heads as gifts for SS officers. She was also accused of creating a lampshade from human skin. Although this story appears to be apocryphal, it is the case that she possessed samples of tattooed skin.

It is obvious why stories such as Ilse Koch’s lampshade become abiding myths. They point to what we see as the ultimate disregard for humanity, a willingness not only to take lives but to molest the dead. We recoil from these activities as we recoil from necrophilia, grave-robbing, and other defilements. Anthropodermic bibliopegy fits somewhere within this grisly tradition.

Yet skin need not be peeled and processed to become a vehicle for words. Skin, a project by writer and artist Shelley Jackson, involves volunteers each being tattooed with a single word from a short story. The story will not be published elsewhere, and the participants will, for the purposes of the project, be considered embodiments of the words they carry; they will be, in effect, 'words'. 'Only the death of words effaces them from the text. As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died.' Whereas the products of anthropodermic bibliopegy are at best crude metaphors—the body as book; the skin of a man in death containing the story of the man’s trespasses—Skin draws together body and words in a beautiful, purposeful, diffuse fashion. It humanises words, rather than defiling humans. 'The author,' Jackson affirms, 'will make every effort to attend the funerals of her words.'

Tim Sterne is a Melbourne writer. He can be found on Twitter @timsterne.