In early America, Boston was the main centre of the book trade (including bookbinding), followed by Philadelphia and, by a distance, New York. As most early bookbinders worked anonymously, it is difficult to put a timeline to developments.
The earliest identified binder was John Ratcliff who was sent from London sometime between 1661 and 1663 for the purpose of binding copies of Eliots Indian Bible, the first Bible published in British North America. Puritan missionary John Eliot (“apostle to the Indians”) had undertaken the monumental task of translating the Geneva Bible into the indigenous language. Using English book binding accessories, Ratcliff bound 200 of the 1,500 copies of this Bible in sheep-skin for church dignitaries and wealthy clients. He and his family remained in Boston for about twenty years.
Traditionally, bindings were made from calfskin, sheepskin, or goatskin (referred to as “Morocco leather”). Over time, other and more exotic materials were used, including the integuments of tigers, zebras, snakes, or kangaroos.
Now considered a macabre technique and associated with “dark” periods in history, anthropodermic bibliopegy is the practice of binding books in human skin. Exemplars of those have been circulating amongst private collectors for a considerable time.
In 1979, the library of obstetrician Alistair Gunn was auctioned at Bonham’s in London. Specific attention was given to a copy of De integritatis et corruptionis virginum notis (1663), a collection of gynecological essays by various authors. The book was bound about 1865 in Paris at the request of Ludovic Bouland, a native of Metz, who practised medicine in the capital. A note inserted in the book explained that the study’s subject matter deserved a binding that would match its contents.
The essays were bound in a piece of woman’s skin. At the sale, the copy was acquired as a possible exhibit by Annabel Geddes, founder of the London Dungeon. On reflection, she decided to keep it herself. In the end, the book found a permanent home when it was added to the medical collections of London’s Wellcome Library.
The theme of flaying recurs in the ancient myths from the Aztecs to the Ancient Greeks, it figures in European painting (Titian, Michelangelo), and is documented in cases of penal punishment from medieval Europe to twentieth-century Mongolia.
In 1303, Richard de Podlicote (Dick Puddlecote) broke into Edward I’s Wardrobe treasury at Westminster Abbey and stole a portion of the King’s gems and gold. When caught, he was hung and flayed. The public spectacle was designed to shock and prevent. As a warning to any potential thief, Dick’s skin was stretched across the treasury door. The imposition of the law was about impact.
Turning human skin into durable items has an equally long history. The article on “Peau humaine” in Diderot’s mid-eighteenth century Encyclopédie explains how to make human leather in factual, non-emotive terms. The mood changed after the French Revolution when the skin trade came to symbolize the era’s cruel regime.
The centre of terror was found at the Château de Meudon which housed a tannery where, allegedly, the skin of guillotined victims was turned into leather (the claim was repeated in Thomas Carlyle’s 1837 history of the French Revolution). The product was sold to leather workers, breech makers, and bookbinders.
Crime accounts in ‘special’ covers were of continuous interest to collectors. In 1821, John Horwood was hanged for murder in Bristol and his body cut up for teaching purposes. A book detailing his trial, execution and dissection was published and retained at Bristol’s Royal Infirmary. It was bound with Horwood’s skin by a local surgeon.
Grave robber and murderer William Burke was hanged in January 1829 in Edinburgh and dissected by Alexander Monro in front of an audience of 30,000 people. A wallet made from his tanned skin is preserved in the Anatomy Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. A pocket book was bound in his skin and stamped on the front in gold “Burke’s Skin 1829.”
It is not surprising that most recorded samples are medical books. Anatomist John Hunter acquired a copy of the Tables of the Skeleton and Muscles of the Human Body by Bernhard Albinus which, in 1749, had been translated from Latin into English. He reputedly commissioned the book to be bound in human skin.
The making of such books was pursued by American medics too. John Stockton Hough, a Philadelphia physician, had treated a local woman named Mary Lynch who died in 1869 of tuberculosis. During an autopsy, he preserved skin from her thighs to bind three of his textbooks on, ironically, female health and reproduction (now held in the city’s Historical Medical Library).
Born to French parents in Algeria on October 4th, 1890, Maurice Hamonneau took an interest in bookbinding at a young age. His father, an officer in the elite infantry regiment of Zouaves, decided upon a different career for the youngster. Maurice entered the French Naval Academy. Upon graduation in 1907, and against the will of his parents, he joined the French Foreign Legion.
Discharged in the spring of 1914, he was immediately drafted into World War I and badly wounded after an artillery massacre near Verdun. He later realized that a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim he carried in his breast pocket (the 1913 Mercure de France edition) stopped the bullet and saved his life. In the aftermath, he was rewarded the Croix de Guerre.
When news reached him that Rudyard’s young son John Kipling had died while serving with the Irish Guards, Hamonneau was moved to send the medal and the damaged copy of Kim to Kipling as gifts. The author was deeply touched.
After the war, Maurice settled in Paris where he worked as a bookbinder. He exchanged letters with Kipling and the two met on various occasions. After a brief spell in Monte Carlo and divorced from his first wife, Hamonneau was granted an immigration visa for the United States.
Manhattan & Brooklyn
Having arrived in New York in February 1925 aboard S.S. Patria of the French Fabre Line, he settled in Riverside Drive, Manhattan, where he worked as a chemist and bookbinder. Two years later he re-married a French woman by the name of Baptistine Reulet. When their only son was born in 1929, the child was named Jean in memory of John Kipling. Rudyard gratefully returned medal and book to Jean (the bullet hole edition of Kim is preserved in the Library of Congress).
Maurice’s second marriage also failed and he then married Eleanor Ruggeiro. In the 1940 Census he was listed as a bookbinder living in St John’s Place, Brooklyn. In 1942 he was employed to manage the bookstore of the American Museum of Natural History. It was here that his reputation as an uncommon specialist started to mushroom, especially after the museum organized an exhibit of his exotic bindings. The October 1945 issue of Life magazine described his work as the “world’s most unconventional bookbinding.”
Hamonneau retired from the American Museum in 1948 to launch a new venture with the opening of the East Coast Mineral Company. His office was located in the Hotel Endicott at Columbus Avenue and 81st Street (just behind the American Museum of Natural History). He had turned into a serious mineralogist and offered a substantial stock of rare specimens to his clients.
Bookbinding remained his passion. Advocating that the integument is an integral part of the book, Maurice was the proud owner of Thomas Bateman’s Cutaneous Diseases (1818) which was bound in “full morocco,” that is, the dark skin of a Moroccan male; he acquired a copy of Mein Kampf which he bound in skunk skin; Frederick Champion’s With the Camera in Tiger-Land was wrapped in Bengal tiger fur; and he covered An American in Paris by Janet Flanner, French correspondent of The New Yorker magazine, in black kangaroo and calf leather with silk linings.
Maurice specialized in bindings that expressed the character of either the publication or its owner. Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) was dressed with material of a German military uniform.
Billy Wilder at Buchenwald
Hamonneau died in March 1952 and was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, Brooklyn. A year earlier, in a re-trial at Augsburg, a war criminal had been imprisoned for life. Ilse Koch, the sadistic “witch of Buchenwald,” was wife to the camp’s first commandant Karl-Otto Koch. It was alleged that she had souvenirs made for her from the tattooed skin of murdered inmates.
Filmmaker Billy [Samuel] Wilder, a Jewish refugee from Poland, had arrived in Hollywood in 1933. Shortly after the liberation of Buchenwald in 1945, he directed a documentary on behalf of the United States Department of War called Death Mills about atrocities in the camp. A widely circulated still photo from the film shows a table covered with preserved human remains, including two shrunken heads and pieces of tattooed skin.
Among the items presented was a lampshade allegedly made of human skin at the “request of an SS officer’s wife.” Although the story was dismissed as a myth at the trial, it impacted upon our collective memory and became emblematic of Nazi barbarism.
The practice of covering books in human skin was considered morally repugnant and no longer acceptable.
Illustrations, from above: The Eliot Indian: Bible Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God, printed by Samuel Green and Marmaduke Johnson of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Bound by Ratcliff in 1663 (Rosenbach Museum & Library, Philadelphia); Titian, Flaying of Marsyas, 1570/6 (Archdiocesan Museum Kroměříž); three books bound from the skin of Mary Lynch (Mutter Museum, Philadelphia); Burke’s death mask and a pocket book bound in his skin (Surgeons’ Hall Museum, Edinburgh); Rudyard Kipling’s Kim with bullet hole on upper left corner (Library of Congress); Hamonneau’s Croix de Guerre medal (Library of Congress); Maurice Hamonneau at work; and Ilse Koch.