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The Strange Story Of The Boston Athenaeum Skin Book

September 19, 2018

The Strange Story Of The Boston Athenaeum Skin Book

James Allen, a.k.a. George Walton was a notorious career criminal born in Lancaster, Massachusetts in 1809. If the name - or names - sound familiar, it's probably because of the extremely personal item Allen left behind after his death.

Located in a locked room at the beautiful and fascinating Boston Athenaeum is a handwritten copy of Allen's memoir. What makes it so special is the fact that it is bound in the burglar's own skin.

The "Boston Athenaeum Skin Book" is about the size of an ordinary paperback with the Latin phrase “Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est:” - “This book was bound in Walton’s skin” - printed on its cover.

 It is housed in a custom-made box and only brought out for special events and pre-scheduled viewings.

Image via Boston Athenaeum
Allen was from a poor family and began his life of crime at the age of 15. He was constantly in and out of prison for various burglaries and highway robberies and would spend his incarcerations reading books.
As he lay dying of tuberculosis in the state prison in Charlestown, MA, Allen relayed the story of his life to the warden and asked that he transcribe it. He also had an additional request: 
“Allen asked that enough of his skin be tanned to provide bindings for two copies of this memoir,” Stephen Z. Nonack writes in Acquired Tastes, an account of the Boston Athenaeum’s collections. 
Two copies of the memoir were made. Allen requested that one go to his doctor, and the other to John Fenno, Jr., one of his victims. Allen considered Fenno to be “the only man who had ever stood up to him,” according to Nonack.
“A sufficient piece of skin was removed from Allen’s back and taken to a local tannery, where it was treated to look like grey deerskin and finally delievered into the hands of… a bookbinder,” the Athenaeum’s website reads.

 The practice of binding texts in human skin is known as anthropodermic bibliopegy, and may date back to the French Revolution, when the French Constitution is said to have been bound in the skin of those who opposed the new Republic. 

 The skin book has been at the Boston Athenaeum so long, it is no longer known how it got there. One theory is that it was donated by John Fenno, Jr.’s daughter sometime in the 19th century. 

 Despite their collection of more than 150,000 rare books, The Boston Athenaeum Skin Book remains one of its most popular attractions.

Any visitor can get a peak at Allen's memoirs on display in the first floor reading room, but in order to see the skin book, you must be a member, join a scheduled public tour, or request a private viewing at least a week in advance.


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