Odd Volumes

Books come in a variety of sizes, from hefty dictionaries to things no bigger than postage stamps.  Miniature books have been around for centuries. M. George Salomon, a nineteenth century Frenchman, owned a library of more than 700 miniature volumes, none exceeding two inches tall by one and one-third inches wide. One woman now has a collection of about 3,000 miniature Bibles, each one unique. Today there is even a miniature book society, its purpose being to promote “all aspects of the book arts with special affection for the small format.”


Anne Boleyn (1501-1536) is supposed to have carried to her execution the miniature prayer book shown below. Ironically, it contains a portrait of her husband, Henry VIII. The book measures about an inch wide and an inch and a half tall.



Anne Boleyn's Psalter



At the other extreme is an atlas now in the British Library presented to King Charles II of England in 1660 by the merchants of Amsterdam. The tome measures five feet ten inches high and three feet five inches wide. At least two people are required to open it and turn its pages.



Wold's largest book



Besides coming in a variety of sizes, books over the centuries have been bound in a variety of materials—cloth, paper, wood, bone, ivory, asbestos, horse hair, cowhide, goat skin, pigskin, and more. Some books have even been covered in human skin. Prior to 1832 in England, doctors and medical students were allowed to dissect only bodies of executed criminals. The populace loved to read accounts of the lives and deaths of these rogues, and it was not unheard of for a copy to be bound in the miscreant’s own hide.


Such a volume now resides in the Bristol Public Record Office. The book, dated 1821, describes the dissection of John Horwood, hanged on April 13, 1821. It also contains a transcript of Horwood’s trial for the murder of his former girlfriend, Eliza Balsom. The book, bound in Horwood’s skin, is beautifully hand tooled around the edges and bears a picture of a gallows on the front cover. Until recently, Horwood’s skeleton hung in a cupboard at Bristol University with the rope still around its neck, but on April 13, 2011, exactly 190 years after Horwood was hanged, his remains were buried next to his father.



Book bound in John Horwood's skin

 Book bound in John Horwood’s skin


An edition of John Milton’s poetical works, published in 1852, is bound in the skin of George Cudmore, a rat catcher from Roborough, near Exeter, Devon. Cudmore was convicted of poisoning Sarah Dunn with arsenic, for which he was executed on March 25, 1830. The book was probably bound by a local bookseller. But why the poetical works of John Milton and why bound in human skin? No one knows. “It sounds grim,” said the assistant librarian of Westcountry Studies Library where the volume resides, “but if I gave you the book to hold and didn’t tell you what it was covered in you would never know; it just looks like leather.” A contemporary inscription on the inside cover explains the book’s unusual binding but not the story behind it.



Book bound in George Cudmore's skin

 Book bound in George Cudmore’s skin


A French publisher once brought out an edition of Rousseau’s Social Contract bound in the skin of aristocrats guillotined during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution. Other publishers in France at the time evidently took advantage of the same situation, for a high percentage of books now extant covered in human skin are in French. The Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley has a prayer book in French that is bound in human skin. Other libraries in the United States that have at least one volume bound in human skin include the Harvard Law School library, the John Hay Library at Brown University, and the Richard B. Russell Special Collections Library at the University of Georgia.


Finally, the mistress of French novelist Eugène Sue (1804-1857) stipulated in her will that an edition of her lover’s works be bound in her skin. When she died, her wish was carried out. In 1951 a copy of Sue’s Vignettes: les Mystères de Paris, bound in his mistress’ skin, sold at Foyles Bookshop in London for the equivalent of twenty-nine dollars.


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