No Skin Off My Nose: The Unappetizing Narrative of the Life of James Allen

(Recently, I was asked to create a faux blog for my Writing for Media Professionals course. Because the resulting “site,” Libris Obscuriis tonally similar to my author blog, I’ve decided to reproduce three of its “posts” here. It’s a shame to let content go to waste, after all!)

In a room at the Boston Athaeneum, there is a locked box; and in that box, there is a book. Take the book out. Run your hands over its cover. See how pale it is. Feel how bumpy. Raise it to your nose and inhale the dust of two centuries. Imagine the author and his surroundings. Get drunk on nostalgia for a time and place you’ve never visited.

Now listen to me as I reveal the following: The book you’re holding is made of human skin.

Narrative of the Life of James Allen, bound in human skin.

You didn’t throw the book on the ground just now, did you? That was a bad idea. Pick it up. Dust it off. Stick it back in the box and hope nobody noticed. Narrative of the Life of James Allen is one of the rarest volumes in the Athaeneum’s collection.

Penned in 1837 by condemned highwayman James Allen, Narrative is both an autobiography and a confession. Allen, it seems, was a bit of a self-promoter. If he was going to be executed by the state, he was going to leave society something to remember him by—particularly one member of society, Mr. John A. Fenno.

It was Fenno who turned Allen in after Allen unsuccessfully tried to rob him. Allen didn’t nurse any hard feelings, though. He was impressed. So impressed, in fact, that he had a personalized copy of his opus sent to Fenno with his compliments—and three square feet of his skin.

Binding books in human skin wasn’t unheard of in those days. But a criminal requesting his skin be put to that purpose? That was something special.

Where Do I Find It?

  • Title: Narrative of the Life of James Allen
  • Genre: Autobiography
  • Location: Boston Athaeneum
    10 ½ Beacon Street
    Boston, MA 02108
  • Hours: Mon-Thurs 9 am – 8 pm
    Fri 9 am – 5:30 pm
    Sat 9 am – 4 pm
    Sun 12 pm – 4 pm
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