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A Look at (weird) Bookmaking History

Posted on September 22, 2011 by guest-nb There have been 0 comments

From the dawn of Gutenberg, bookmaking has undergone several interesting and exciting changes. Here at Nicholas Brealey, our books are made with lovely paper and lovely covers, or sold online as e-books. But what about the... lesser-known bookmaking practices of centuries past? Well, they weren't always so conventional.

Burley Grove : One Tale's Backstory

James Allen aka George Walton aka Jonas Pierce aka James H. York aka Burley Grove was quite the interesting man.

Allen was born in Massachusetts in the early 1800’s, but very little is known about his early life. He grew to become one of the most famous and most feared highwaymen in the Boston area. James Allen— most commonly known as Burley Grove— eluded police capture for years, making him one of BPD’s most-wanted criminals.

On a particularly unfortunate night, Burley stopped a passing coach for robbery. The man inside, John Fenno, had just dealt with a really terrible day and was NOT in the mood for Burley robbing him blind. Burley approached the coach, demanding everything Fenno owned… and, well, Fenno beat him up. Badly.

So badly, actually, that witnesses thought he was a would-be murderer. Unaware that Fenno was railing on the elusive Burley Grove, passersby reported the beating-in-progress to the police, who rushed to the scene.

Needless to say, the police were pleasantly surprised when they realized they had captured James Allen aka George Walton aka Jonas Pierce aka James H. York aka Burley Grove, and poor Burley was sent off to Massachusetts State Prison immediately.

Since his capture left his family with no source of income, Burley worked out a deal with the prison warden. Burley would relate his memoir to the warden to write down (Mister Grove was illiterate, as all great historical criminals seem to be), and his story would be published and be a huge success because he was the most famous criminal of the time.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. Burley didn’t have the money to get his book published. So, he worked out a deal with the warden: after he died, his body was to be sent to the local tanner, who would make leather out of his skin to bind his book in.

Yes. You read that correctly, dear readers.

But here’s where it gets really fascinating. Burley’s skin covered two copies of his book, “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” (long-winded much?). One was sent to John Fenno as a posthumous "I hate you" present, and the other apparently fell into the hands of the warden.

Fenno’s copy was donated a few decades ago to a private library in Boston, The Boston Athenæum, which is right up the street from our lovely office. The Warden’s copy has been missing since it was made…

More on Anthropodermic Bibliopegy

Surprisingly, the “art” of binding books in human skin isn’t all that rare. Binding books in human skin was all the rage in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially during the time of the French Revolution. In fact, several copies of the French Constitution of 1793 are bound in human skin— mostly that of slain victims.

Following the Revolution, the practice seemed to become popular across Europe. Those silly intellectuals of the romantic age clamored for all sorts of human skin books— anatomy textbooks made possible by the hides of cadavers, accounts of fatal criminal trials wrapped in the accused himself, even Bibles derived from flayed heathens.

One of the most famous skin books is called, “Murder in the Red Barn.” The book is an account of the trial of William Corder, an Englishman who killed his lover, Maria Marten, in 1827. The trial was highly publicized. After Corder was hanged on August 11, 1828, his skin was quickly sent to the tanner. You can see the book on display at Moyses Hal Museum, Bury St. Edmunds in West Suffolk, England.

Where to go

If you’re really interested in seeing some skin books first hand (though that’s kind of gross), check out your local Ivy League university or college. Many schools have at least one or two anthropodermic bibliopegy-ized books.

The Langdell Law Library at Harvard University holds a book on Spanish Law circa the 1600’s. The owner of the skin was apparently killed by Wavuma tribesmen.

The John Hay Library at Brown University has three skin books: two copies of “Dance of Death” and one copy of an anatomy textbook written by Andreas Vesalius in 1543. All three books were not originally published in human skin— they were rebound by super creepy collectors in the 1800’s.

If you want to look at James Allen’s story, you won’t have much luck. I believe the volume is kept under lock and key in the office of the Boston Athenæum’s Director. While the library is members only, there is a first floor of exhibits and galleries that are open to the public.

What We’ve Learned

  • Anthropodermic biopegy is really weird and you should not try it at home. Please.
  • If you want to see some fascinating and rare books, go check out Ivy League libraries!
  • If you ever find a book that says “Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est” on the cover, congratulations! You have found the Warden’s lost copy of Burley Grove’s memoir and are now a millionaire! Just throw on some latex gloves before getting that baby insured, okay?

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