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Weird History: The Poetry Book Bound in Human Skin

Let's talk about George Cudmore's skin.

But, first, let's talk about George Cudmore. In 1830, George Cudmore was hanged for the murder of his wife, Grace Cudmore. Twenty-three years later, his flayed skin was used to cover the binding of The Poetical Works of John Milton.

When I first heard about this, I was baffled. Why aren't we talking about something this weird ALL THE TIME? I wasn't sure. I started to wonder if maybe it's just an urban legend. So, I did some digging and sure enough, it's true.

According to a 2011 article by BBC News, Cudmore was dissected in an Exeter hospital following his execution. During this process, some of his skin was flayed and tanned. Bodies for dissection were hard to come by back then and I'm assuming they didn't want to waste anything. "We don't really know why the skin was retained or, indeed, where," senior assistant librarian at the Westcountry Studies Library in Exeter, Tony Rouse, explains in the article. "It must have been kept somewhere until 1853 when it was used to cover the book."

We know that this particular copy of Milton's work, published in 1852, was bound in Cudmore's skin because...well, the book tells us. There's an inscription inside the volume that specifies who the tanned skin belonged to in life. Because, you know, it's good to know where a book's skin comes from.

The practice of binding books in human skin is called Anthropodermic bibliopegy. Megan Rosenbloom discusses the concept in her 2020 non-fiction book Dark Archives: A Librarian's Investigation Into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin. An excerpt from the book available at CrimeReads notes that the skin of a convicted murder named William Corder was used to bind a book about his trial after his execution in 1828. While shocking, the use of Corder's skin at least seems…relevant? The book is about him, after all. But why was Milton's poetry swathed in Cudmore's tanned skin? No one is quite sure. But there are theories.

A few years ago, Lauren Fox Gill published an article called "'Strange alteration!': The Victorian Milton and a Book Bound in Human Skin" in Milton Quarterly. Here, Gill notes:

The disturbing envelopment of Milton's text in Cudmore's skin forces us to think about

the materiality of the text, and particularly the presence of the body and bodily violence

in Milton's poetry; both body and text here have a relationship to sin and punishment,

and even more specifically a sin shared between husband and wife; the binding

suggests an association of Milton with revolutionary violence; and finally, the object

makes manifest a power relation bound up in class, literacy, and the body.

It sounds like the act of binding Milton's book in Codmore's skin made for a very bold statement, not just in terms of shock value but in response to text itself.

The Victorian era is a time covered again and again here at Frightful. It was an age where the happening of strange things and the documentation of those things really came together.

Several times now in describing the Victorian era to friends and family, I have quoted the 1993 film Jurassic Park (and no, I will not apologize for referencing a dinosaur movie in this very serious look at human skin books). In Jurassic Park, Dr. Malcom says that iconic line "your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should." It's a statement that really embodies the Victorian era. They tried a lot of things. Some worked. Some didn't. Some involved repurposing the skin of executed men.

Well, now we all know about the poetry book wrapped in human skin. You're welcome, maybe?

Happy National Poetry Month!

[Image Credit: John Milton print by William Faithorne via Wikimedia Commons]

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Apr 07, 2023

Both interesting and horrific. Glad I didn't live during the Victorian Age.

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