"A logical if macabre enterprise"
[ strangeness - february 09 ]
Narrative of the Life of James Allen, The Highwayman, Bound in His Own Skin, 1837
We don't have any likenesses of self-described highwayman James Allen, but he is best known for botching a robbery attempt in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1833, because that unsuccessful hold-up led to Allen memorialising himself in the form of a book that he presented to his would-be victim. The bullet he shot was deflected by a buckle or button and spared the life of John Fenno, Jr. Impressed by Fenno facing him rather than running away, Allen (aka George Walton, Jonas Pierce, James H York, Burley Grove) asked that two copies of his memoirs be bound in his own skin upon his death - one presented to his intended victim and the other to Dr Bigelow, who had attended him in the Massachusetts State Prison. Only two years into his 20-year prison term, Allen died of consumption at aged 28, in July 1837. Before his death, he declared the narrative he dictated to be true and correct to the best of his recollection. After his death, his wishes were, indeed, carried out. Although the idea of binding his autobiography in his own leather seems rather gruesome, Allen came by it naturally. His memoirs profess a high regard for books and he had worked as a shoemaker in and out of prison. After Allen's body was stripped of its skin at Massachusetts General Hospital, local bookbinder Peter Low tanned the hide to resemble gray deerskin and learned only later - and much to his distress - that the skin was that of a man. The copy of the book presented to John Fenno remained in his family for a few decades until donated by his daughter to the Boston Athenaeum, where it can be seen to this day. The whereabouts of the second copy are unknown but unnecessary, as James Allen has succeeded in his bid for physical immortality.
Having thus established that human hides have been tanned, and that the hides are usable, it requires no ingenuity to extend its use to other purposes and, having regard, as the lawyers say, to the close relationship between books and men, their humane behavior, etc., I find the application of this sort of leather to books a logical if macabre enterprise. - Jackson, Holbrook, 'Books Bound in Human Skin', (1932)
Those who practiced anthropodermic bookbinding merged the book and the body in pursuit of life after death, creating objects that allow identity to outlast the body, that ensure a symbolic continuation of the memory of the deceased rather than a religious immortality of the spirit. When self-designated, the skin is offered by its owner in return for the promulgation of memory and identity. James Allen sought such a secular perpetuity, and by my definition of symbolic immortality has suceeded. His anthropodermic book functions as he had intended, reflecting his life appropriately and carrying his name and story forward in time to continue his presence on earth. His narrative shows that he was not religious, and his deathbed piety as recounted by the warden at the end of the narrative is suspect because of his earlier declarations that he would never live an honest life and would never repent for his crimes. He realised that creating a book so intimate to his body would result in the presence and persistence of his identity after death, regardless of what happened to his soul.
The book – the physical and symbolic representation of his life - is given as a gift to the man whose life Allen almost took. Fenno accepts the physical and intellectual emblem of Allen's life - which includes the anecdote about nearly killing Fenno. He receives a life, rather than having his taken, so the exchange is "a life for a life". It seems in a sense to be a remorseful gesture, but on the other hand one that ensures continuity through Fenno family legend and later through institutionalisation at the Boston Athenaeum. By giving a second copy to the doctor who treated him in prison, Allen appears to be showing gratitude by way of this gift. With the gift to Fenno, perhaps, Allen is grateful for not having killed his victim, since in the narrative he condemns those who kill for reasons other than self-defense. The gift is not a gift of generosity given with the heart: it is, instead, a reasoned attempt to balance the scales, which serves at the same time to perpetuate Allen's memory - which may have been the primary motivation.
Allen's idea for anthropodermically binding his book probably arose while handling animal leather, which we learn he had several opportunities to do as a shoemaker in the prison shops in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The material is both dead and retains a presence, paralleling text, which in scholarly tradition is seen as both dead and alive. Tanning the skin allows this covering of the living body to survive long after the body itself has decomposed. As we learn from Julia Kristeva, leather bypasses our instinct to reject the "abject", which includes anything related to corpses. As the outer covering of a body that would quickly become corrupt without intervention, the skin in Allen's case is tanned like an animal hide: harvested from his body shortly after death, tanned and "squared up" so that it becomes a suitable binding material. But where it parts from taxidermy is the human ability to reunite a remnant of that particular body with the leavings of that person's thought. In other words, books bound in calf-skin contain the ideas of many men and women of letters, but the cow and the author have no relationship. An anthropodermic book has a direct relationship between exterior and interior, since the covering of the book once covered the author, from whose mind the contents issued. Body and thought remain united for future readers. Allen's book is autobiography - life-writing - in the true sense of the roots of the word. Allen has written (-graphed) his life (-bio-) with his entire self (auto-), the tangible physicality of his skin and the intangible consciousness of his mind made physical by way of ink and paper, with the two bound together indelibly. Allen was atypical of most 19th-century prisoners in leaving a written record. The combination of his words and his flesh give continued life to his thoughts, since the morbid gesture secures a readership in future generations. The act of anthropodermic binding is concretised in the title, which is stamped in black and gold on the cover: Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est ["This book by Walton bound in his own skin"]. The book on its own may have been misunderstood or overlooked, since its appearance and feel are no different than animal leather, except for the translation of the Latin title. His physical and intellectual afterlife, in the form of the anthropodermic book, are reunited and reinforce one another. To hold the book is to hold Allen's life in your hands. It is his liber vitae.
A 1944 Boston Athenaeum publication suggested that "surely there can be few books in the world of an interest so impartially divided between the interior and the exterior." Several passages in Allen's text draw attention indirectly to its binding, namely Allen's respect for the written word in book form and his associations with leather by avocation. In his memoir, James Allen shows a high regard for books as physical objects that allow the reader to learn and enjoy. Books entertained and edified, often at the same time. While the rest of his narrative is about his unlawful exploits and escape attempts, Allen makes a point of mentioning that in the state prison in Massachusetts, he was "constantly supplied with books of an historical, biographical, moral and miscellaneous character, which entertained and instructed me..."  Confined a second time, Allen "enjoyed an opportunity of reading many books principally of a moral and religious character." Although even scripture clearly did not impress morality on him, Allen enjoyed reading the Holy Bible and other religious works as historical stories, presumably as he intended his own adventuresome tale to become. At the conclusion of The Highwayman, the warden writes that had Allen's mind been properly cultivated and disciplined, "he would have made a far more useful contribution to the world."
Allen dissembles and never fully explains his reasoning for compelling the prison warden to honor his last request, so much must be inferred. The willingness of his captors to comply with his gruesome, solemn wishes says more about him than them. It is expressive of his desire to manipulate, to react to his perceived victimhood, to escape his fate like he escaped his prison cell. This escape was not religious, although he adds a few disingenuous declarations at the end of the text to appease those who hoped he would repent. Instead, it is a secular and symbolic immortality. It is a material rather than ethereal presence that he secures with his skin. Backed by metaphor about the book and the body, about which Allen was probably unaware, his gesture has resulted in the conveyance of his personality to the present day.
The continued conveyance of Allen's personality depends on the preservation of the vehicle he has used. Still in good condition more than 150 years after his death, his skin has been well preserved. By attaching a physical copy of his story, Allen has ensured that it will have a continued social or historical value as a physical object, especially since it has been accessioned by a museum and displayed along with other historically significant objects. Allen's means of making not only his story but a piece of himself survive his death parallels Romantic ideas of longing for permanence, immortality, and recognition. There may have been in Allen's mind a sense of a piece of himself being handled after death, a sense of perpetuating the circulation of his body in society. Alive, he travelled in criminal circles and prison populations; dead, he might end up in the hands of family friends of Fenno, perhaps society women or men of influence with whom he would not have interacted otherwise. Little did Fenno know that his defiance of an armed stranger would eventually lead to a permanent token of their intersection in history. Circulation as a measure of a book's immortality parallels reputation as a measure of a person's immortality. Based on the braggadocio in his narrative, Allen valued his reputation as a successful highwayman, an outlaw, someone with a reputation for breaking the law. While he did not become a household name as a robber and burglar, within prison he had a reputation as what we would call an "escape risk". He defied all attempts (bars, fences, shackles) to hold him in confinement. Defying the laws of nature by making part of his body survive death was a way of breaking another set of boundaries. And the second edition of his narrative served as insurance against the possible loss of the first.
When the owner of the skin has written the contents of an anthropodermic book, that increases the odds that the book will survive. Rather than a medical text bound in anonymous cadaver skin, The Highwayman's skin has not just a title, but a name. When the book contains the life of a person - anthropodermic on the outside, autobiographical on the inside - immortality in the physical sense is almost assured. In the case of James Allen, the book and its creation is an integral part of the story it contains. It is abstract (the language of his life) and physical (the skin of his body). The bodily artifact demands respect and proper curation and the text it protects expresses the original owner in a very direct way by being a transcription of his spoken words. Conflation of body and text therefore allows Allen to communicate with the future, to time travel, to be immortal in a way that surpasses even most authors. "The Highwayman" survives - as a life story, and as an artifact associated with that life. The skin of the book is the skin of the man, so his "body of work" has a more literal meaning than it does for most authors. The physical presence of Allen's remains lends gravity to the story he left and vice versa. The combination of the two demands dignity. Through this preserved bodily artifact, Allen continues to circulate in society and his story lives on through this dissemination.
Allen's anthropodermic act is separate from any sense of religious immortality and is not complemented by a belief in the survival of the soul, although there is the idea of redemption in the story of his bound memoirs. By dictating the narrative, he is performing a life review. He sentences himself to a punishment given at the time to more heinous criminals - the prescription that a trancript of the trial be bound in their own tanned skins. Though Allen's story is not a trial, it is a transcript - a record of his dictated words, of an oral history. He gives his life, as represented by his skin-wrapped life story, in exchange for the life he nearly took. That is the view in macrocosm, but in microcosm several contradictions can be found that call into question Allen's redemption in both word and deed. Within the text, are we to believe that his boasting or his Bible references are more in character? Allen says, "nor do I think that anyone but a coward would take human life, except in self-defense," and yet he nearly killed the unarmed Fenno while robbing him. He was immoral enough to shoot at Fenno's head, though he claims he did not intend to kill the man. "The pistol was discharged rather sooner than I intended, and when I had elevated it about as high as his breast," he admits. He believed he had shot his victim fatally in the chest and was relieved to see him rise up. He shows little regard for his victims, except to ensure that they survive his assault, but is his regard for their welfare or his own guilt? Continuing the narrative after Allen was unable to continue, the warden writes, "He long entertained the dark notion of the eternal annihilation of the soul after death; and it was not until a few days prior to his decease, that brighter and more correct views flashed across his fading vision." He has, on the surface, become a believer. But has he convinced his jailers of the sincerity of his religious feelings so that they will authorise this use of his body as Allen's self-directed form of penance? Or have they been duped?
Allen attended the Sabbath school that was established in the prison, but presumably for the diversion rather than the lessons in morals. He admits to one chaplain that he does not intend to live an honest life. Prison officials confirmed that Allen called himself a disbeliever ("infidel" was the word he used), but believed that due in part to their efforts Allen would lead an honest life if he had it to do over again. They claimed that Allen asked them to communicate a message of repentance to the convicts, and that he exclaimed within days of his death, "O God, forgive me for all the injuries I have done to my fellow men." Before he died, Allen was said to have declared the narrative he dictated to be true and correct to the best of his recollection. The warden concludes:
Thus closes the history of a man, who in the short period of his existence, was more deep and bold in crime, than is known to have been the case with any young man of equal age in this part of our country.
The warden was pleased that they had been able to convert such an incorrigible criminal and does not seem to consider than Allen may have been putting on a show of good faith to get what he wanted. The narrative would lead a careful reader to believe that Allen is too clever to convey a story with no subplot, no subterfuge, no double entendre. I suggest that Allen is being two-faced about his remorse. Halfway through the narrative, he confirms, "I do not and will not repine." He has brushed up on his Bible so that he may pretend piety - his purpose not to repent for his crimes, but to use the situation they have put him in to secure promises to carry out his wishes. He offers up a duplicitous belief in religious immortality in order to gain the symbolic and physical immortality that an anthropodermic book promises.
The idea of binding his memoirs in his skin was conceived by Allen with no outside influence, thus the intent was his alone and he was neither coerced nor discouraged. Allen's idea for anthropodermically binding his book probably arose while handling animal leather, which we learn he had several opportunities to do. In prison in New Hampshire, he had the opportunity to learn the shoemaker's trade, which involved the working of leather and the likely wearing of a leather apron. Soon after he took up highway robbery, one of his first hauls from a wagon included "two good buffalo robes and a quantity of leather." They turn out to be another of his undoings when they were rightly suspected by the police of being stolen goods and resulted in Allen's arrest and sentence to two years of hard labor. During his final incarceration, Allen again took up shoemaking in the prison shop. This put him in touch, literally, with leather and the patterns used to craft it into useful objects, from which he may have made the leap to the possibility of putting his own skin to such a use.
Also of interest in his narrative are the clues Allen provides to his own personality, clues that shed light on his posthumous directive. Despite any overt coercion in his life of crime, he paints himself as a victim over and over in the text, leading me to believe that his directive was at least in part rebellious. He points out that he was orphaned by his mother and abandoned by his father, which he claims left him "naturally hasty in my temper, active and ambitious, and inclined to have my own way in most respects." Repeatedly being paid for his labors with counterfeit bills "tended to sour my mind and cause distrust of the honesty of my fellow men." He blames his misfortune even more so on the resulting lack of money:
"The want of sufficient capital in the outset, is the principal reason why so few of those who commence such a course of life do not succeed in their undertakings. It was the principal cause of my bad luck."
But so were any number of other reasons. Allen experienced headaches when he attempted a career in shipbuilding, was refused by the Merchant Marines, and was often short-changed his wages for honest work. The self-told stories reveal Allen to be a bitter young man, eager to place blame outside himself, and primed to seek revenge against those who wrong him. This would have included the prison wardens and guards, based on Allen's complaints that they treated him poorly. So even sneakier than his attempts to escape his cells and shackles was his intent to have those men in authority do his bidding - and to make that bidding as unpleasant as possible, namely the bloody business of stripping his dead body of skin and forming it into the object he has designated. He would be pleased to know that in his final directive, he succeeded at last.
Self-binding in combination with autobiography meet Allen's purpose and convey his story to the present. He has made his life on earth permanent. The identity he has articulated through word and deed surpass what his mummified body could have accomplished - unless a copy of Allen's deathbed confession was placed under his arm. Allen was not under a death sentence at the prison, so the officials were not in the position of having to prepare for and carry out an execution. In lieu of that, Allen - knowing that he was consigned to death by his health - compels them to perform certain unsavory actions on his body. His request obligates them to flay his corpse, to soak the raw skin in a tanning solution, and to dry it before it could be used as binding material. Presumably, all but the skin was buried, but it is unknown whether the grave was marked. Did Allen think of these abhorrent particulars of his preservation or only of the end result? With the final product as the goal, he probably got great satisfaction knowing that he was sentencing his captors to perform a disgusting duty.
Reading the book visually
More than 150 years after his death, we know James Allen's thoughts and his character. We do not, however, know what he looked like. In this sense, he fails the criteria of visual identity, which depends on the preservation of facial features and the recognisability of the posthumous object as having come from an individual person, named or unnamed. If he was vain enough to secure his posthumous bodily presence, why did Allen not offer us a look at his face? Photography was just being invented, but a drawing would have been an option and an engraving might have been produced if his life and death were more newsworthy. There are no images of the living man to associate with the book and his very skin - no longer flesh-colored - provides few clues to his physical makeup. Neither is any part of the leather distinguishable as being from a particular part of his body., since it is uniform in texture. Aside from the physical remnant, it is his chosen words - his personal diction - that survive. The Allen book does not bear his likeness, but retains more identity than the face that Dr Tunis preserved for medical posterity or the full-body plastinate that Dr von Hagens has preserved in great detail. The text associated with all three specimens are about them, but only in the Allen case has it been dictated by him. We may learn the medical history of a museum specimen, but rarely may we know a specimen's personal history - and almost never first-hand. This example of anatomical identity points out that the preservation of the facial features is not essential to achieve a posthumous identity.
Individuality and universality
Does the specimen represents the personality of the donor or a general example of human anatomy? There is nothing general about Allen's anthropodermic book. His story and his means of preserving it are unique to him and him alone. Although dozens of other anthropodermic books have been made over the centuries, Allen's stands out because of the circumstances of its conception (as a gift to a would-be victim), its creation (a bequest by an imprisoned man), and its curation (on public display with the entire text available on-line). The book is therefore Allen and no one else. His personality is evident in the text and through his decision to seek immortality on earth in this way.
The second copy of the Allen narrative has not surfaced, but this special edition of only two copies may also be a reaction - typical in Romantic times - against standardisation and industrialisation. Allen's book (even if it does have a twin copy) is one-of-a-kind, simply because it wears a different swatch of skin. Anatomy books bound in cadaver skin are also individual in the grain of the leather, but share a common anonymity and so don't share the singularity of the Allen book. Although his anthropodermic leaving begs an explanation of the history of human-bookbinding, it cannot stand in for any other example and is certainly not representative of them all. It is specific to Allen and in no way representative of a universal or referential to a shared anatomical trait. The book alludes only to this particular 19th-century man and has no history that is not bound to his. When you examine the cover or read the contents, you are aware that this man was - and book is - unique. Whether James Allen is an authentic or assumed name, the man who used it was and is an individual. His personality is evident once his story is known, either by reading the text of the entire narrative on-line or examing the actual object and reading excerpts from it at the Boston Athenaeum. His life was singular, as we know by his memoirs and by the fact that he chose to leave them to us in this way.
The audiences that the Allen book finds might do so in a Google search of anthropodermic books, but are soon directed to the fact that this is not any book, but Allen's book. Of all the anthropodermic books I have studied, his has the most individual presence. Some such bindings have been willed by the owners of the skin, but used to bind the work of other authors. Even when bindings were directed by choice, association with someone else's text often left the skin donor as anonymous as the cadavers whose skin was used to such purpose without consent. In Allen's case, the text is a substantial transcript mediated only by the original recorders of his words at his request and the many forms of electronic media that may bring them to today's interested reader. The words are his and the idea to preserve them in this way was his.
As part of his textual preservation, "The Highwayman" does survive in name. It is James Allen who lived a life of crime, James Allen who was arrested, James Allen who died in prison. His name has not been displaced by the name of the warden who transcribed his story or the tanner who prepared his skin, so his method of perpetuating his nominal identity was effective. But Allen was a man of many aliases and he apparently felt it necessary to include them all in the title of his book. He was not always James Allen. Sometimes he was George Walton, other times he was Burley Grove, and still others Jonas Pierce. He was careful to provide the list of aliases, maybe to collect his splintered self and attach it to his affidavit, but neglected to provide a date of birth by which his "real" name could be authenticated. So his identity is not as certain as it first appears, and is less attached to a first and last name than to the act of anthropodermic binding that defines him, the story he dictated, and what joining the two reveal about his character: everything from egotistical to sublime.
Allen is concerned with selfhood and projecting his personality into the future. And yet he seems to have several selves, some of them conflicting. Are the multiple aliases symptoms of instability? Is his "confession" a therapeutic way of uniting his fractured identity through the narrative? Though the author has many names, he has only a single skin, and he anchors his memories to this sensory link to them. He creates a book that then has an identity of its own as "that morbid keepsake of the Fenno family" or later "the anthropodermic book in Boston." The name James Allen appears on the title page, and yet stamped on the cover is the Latinised version of one of his aliases, Waltonis. Was the Latin stamping Allen's directive, and if so was it intended to attract only well-educated readers? It could have been another way of hiding, another layer of alias. Maybe it was another means of metaphorical escape, just as each of the names in his list must have served as a window of opportunity to have deserved remembrance. Allen escaped identities, he escaped prison, and he was in many ways escaping his past. He rids himself of the burden of his orphaned childhood and his adult mistakes by "putting them away" on the page and at the same time taking full responsibility for them by attaching not one, but all his names.
Aside from one of his fellow prisoners, whose name he protects, Allen names many of the men he met at the Massachusetts State prison and after he was released. An inmate named Purchase is mentioned for having set his grandmother on fire. An associate named William Ross was later executed for robbing a priest, but not before explaining the pros and cons of highway robbery to Allen. The highwayman knew each bank he robbed by name, but hedged his bets when it came to the names of the numerous stores Allen broke into, which he always qualified in the narrative: "kept I think by Bennet & Brown," "Deblois & Tremelet, I think," "I believe, a firm under the name Brown & Train.' Allen remembered the names of all the convicts he associated with and none of the men who employed him. But he wants everyone to remember him, by whatever name they knew him, so he includes them all.
The story of James Allen and the perpetuation of both his skin and his personality must be seen within the context of his cultural identity. His anthropodermic book withstands the demands of this criteria by evidencing Allen's social and political self, rather than offering a general sense of the circumstances of the times in which he lived or using his story to make a larger historical point. Issues of race and class are defined not by the object itself, but how they impact his particular autobiography. In addition to being an outlaw, Allen was a racial minority. He may have had a deepset need as a person of mixed race to establish his identity, since it was neither fully white nor African-American. It is possible that his need to be known was heightened by the negative perception that his second-class status may have conveyed during life. He may have wanted those of future generations to see beyond his mixed parentage and to understand that he was more than a criminal who had been caught. Without an illustration of Allen, and in the absence of any corroboration, it is impossible to speculate on the color of his skin and whether he appeared to be one race of the other. The tanner decided on grey to preserve the skin and was quite unaware of later implications. Allen's and our concentration on the skin should not be surprising. It signifies the importance of racial identity, since the skin is where race is played out for each of us.
The racial identity that Allen was born with was compounded by the bad circumstances of his life and the choices he made as a result. As mentioned, he was orphaned by his mother and abandoned by his father. He ran away from his guardian at the age of 12. His naïve agreement to help move what turned out to be stolen property was his first unlawful act and was, he writes, "the precursor of my future destiny." Allen was led into a life of crime far more serious than any earlier instances "of taking fruit or some trifling thing." It was a slippery slope, as he describes: "Thinking, as I had committed one crime, I might as well go in that way, and get money more readily than labor." He embarked on a career of robbery rather than burglary at the advice of a convict named Stephen Symms. He professed not to drink, and so blames none of his exploits on alcohol. But he does blame the influence of others, as discussed in the section about intention. Allen considers his jail time to be penance for his crimes, but then blames incarceration for perpetuating his criminal life. Of being jailed for the first time in 1824, he writes:
"I verily believe that if I had been discharged after the first week of confinement, I should have been honest and steady ever after. In a short time, however, jail scenes and the society of he depraved and vicious became familiar, and I lost, in a good degree, the tender feeling which influenced me on being first committed."
Later he describes how he fell in with bad company, namely Irishman William Ross, who was later executed in Canada. Allen called himself a novice compared to Ross and learned from him that although highway robbery was the most dangerous means of obtaining ill-gotten gains, it yielded the most of them. All the acquaintances Allen mentions are fellow inmates or ex-convicts. Within the narrative, his anecdotes characterise him as a sly and incorrigible prisoner, but he prefers to be remembered as an outlaw - the semi-successful highwayman he was during his brief life outside prison walls.
Allen claims he attempted to find honest employment upon his first release from prison, but soon found himself fencing stolen watches. Then he was the one to recruit an accomplice to take up Ross's advice to pursue highway robbery (and additionally, never to be without weapons). "Your money or your life" became the words of the day. Finding that it was "hard to leave off old tricks," Allen declared that he had no intention of leading an honest life and instead was "determined to take any course that would most easily and readily fill my pockets." Allen was by then incorrigible, and purchased a pair of pistols immediately upon release from his next prison sentence which he then used in his subsequent hold-ups.
It was the use of one of his guns that led to Allen's idea to self-bind his memoirs. The robbery that in effect sealed Allen's fate was that of John Fenno, Jr, who sprang toward him from the wagon and seized his shoulders. Allen writes:
"I endevored to fire my pistol near his ear, not intending, however, to kill him; but did not much care whether I shot off a part of his ear or not."
Allen says he fired too soon, striking Fenno in the chest and causing him to fall to the ground. After seeing him rise up, Allen was gratified that he had not killed the man. After a $100 reward was offered, Allen was captured attempting to leave town by ship. He was convicted and sentenced to 20 years' hard labor. Allen's claims he did not attempt to escape betray a deflation in his self-confidence that was confirmed by an attempt to hang himself in his cell with his suspenders. At the same time, suicide shows agency on Allen's part, willfulness about determining his own fate, a rejection of being under anyone else's control. His ruminations after surviving the suicide attempt led him to believe he could escape the prison after all. He managed to slip out, supported himself by home invasions and store break-ins, and thereafter, in his words, "commenced active operations." Allen is in control of himself, but also as suggested below, in control of the warden in a sense.
A literary reading of the book
What we have, beyond the physical remnant, are Allen's words. Through them his identity has been preserved, even though his likeness has not. He has established a solid literary and linguistic identity through his style, even apart from the fact that his name itself is part of the story. That the story issued from Allen himself, relating the anecdotes firsthand, qualifies this anthropodermic book as very strong in this criterion. Recognition of his life is through his act and not through preservation - even on paper - of his facial features. By authoring his autobiography, Allen has instead defined his identity through language. During one interlude between prison sentences, Allen heard the town clock that had sounded in his ears as a boy:
"Many incidents and associations of that interesting period of life were brought to mind as I lay ruminating on the past, reflecting on the present and speculating on the future."
He then embodies the writing in death, just as he inhabited the story in life. He relives the events while reciting them, and returns to life every time the book is read. The voice is his and Allen takes full ownership of the story by telling it in the first person. Was this memoir an attempt to leave evidence that not all criminals are illiterate?
One thing that stands out in his narrative is Allen's tendency to look back on the foreshadowing of future events. He writes, "While at the shipyard, I was often sent into the front yard of the State Prison for water. Little did I think at the time of being confined a prisoner within its dreary walls." He confides the story of his first association with stolen property and calls it "the precursor of my future destiny." With the benefit of hindsight, he sees threads and themes running through his life and attempts to make sense of them, for his own satisfaction and to create a sort of morality tale for his readers.
Allen examines his life for clues to its course, but makes no obvious references to anthropodermic books. Having read the Bible and other literature in prison, it is possible that Allen was familiar with the theme of gaining immortality through the written word, but it is just as likely that he did so instinctually. It is unknown whether he knew of other books bound in human skin, though he may have been familiar with the contemporary cases of William Corder in England and John Horwood in the US, and the ordered use of their skin to bind their trial transcripts in 1833 and 1821 respectively. But for Allen, anthropodermic binding was not a punishment (except to his jailers). It was a unique way of making his very words live on by attaching them to a relic whose preservation is dictated by the respect shown to all human remains.
The style of Allen's narrative is consistent and reveals quite a bit about his personality. He has established a solid literary and linguistic identity that cannot be separated from the story of his life as he tells it. The story contains no generalities, so it does not work as a universal. Within this accusatory confessional narrative is substantial amount of braggadoccio. Allen mentions with pride every attempt, successful or not, to escape from prison. He recounts break-ins of stores made starting on the very night of his release from jail. He brags how he smuggled $20 into prison in his mouth despite a body search and being in leg irons when he was arrested for attempting to break into and burn down a bank. For those crimes he was sentenced to 15 years in the New Hampshire State Prison, in which he sustained a gunshot wound for trying to scale the wall, survived time in solitary confinement, and escaped successively heavier and more secure iron blocks and chains attached to his leg. Again, he complains that circumstances made him do what he did. His formal requests that the leg irons be removed were denied, even when a new warden took charge of the prison:
"If at this time my irons had been taken off, and I had been set to work in the yard, I should have behaved well; but as they showed me no favor, I was determined to give them all necessary employment to make me secure… I remarked that it was his duty to keep me in confinement, but that I should escape if possible - and would not promise to desist from making an attempt."
Blaming his actions on the refusal of the prison guards to aquiesce to his civil request, he went on to test them by repeated escape attempts, including by tunnelling, that required continued attention. Allen makes a special point of relaying that the officers kept a special eye on him after hearing "I was a hard character to deal with."
Allen seems to subscribe to a 'Robin Hood' ethos and admired partner in crime William Ross because he had never taken a life. Allen himself remains recalcitrant and unrepentant until the end of his life. Of his release from his 15-year prison sentence in 1830, he writes:
"I suffer nothing, if possible, to trouble my mind. As much as I dislike a prison, and irksome as it is to me to be under confinement and restraint, I do not and will not repine - hoping for better days or looking for some lucky time to effect an escape. So little feeling do I have in this respect, that I do not recollect ever shedding a tear over my misfortunes."
Allen's criminal career was a series of arrests for breaking into banks, prison sentences, prison break-outs, recaptures, and resentencing. He boasts that after his first arrest, "I never, in my life, was committed to jail when I had not tools secreted in my clothing or in some other perfectly safe place, which were sufficient to insure escape by sawing off bars, grates or in some other way..." He took advantage of his jailers' every inattention and remained contrary about their treatment of him, accusing them of treating him more severely than other inmates and remarking that since they showed him no favor, he had no incentive to behave well. He stood up to the armed prison guards on more than one occasion, just as Fenno had stood up to him. He modelled himself on one of his victims, at the same time exhibiting the influence of other outlaws on his behavior. For instance, he networked among the prison population, recruiting future partners in crime from within its ranks, just as had been done to him.
In The Hummingbird Cabinet, Judith Pascoe  points out the 19th-century fascination with collecting, coupled with a preoccupation with authenticity:
"The collectors and purveyors of these relics, intent on establishing these objects' credentials, sometimes went so far as to create authenticating stories for entirely inauthentic relics."
The idea of a piece of himself becoming a collectible may have appealed to Allen. But his pride in himself, as evidenced in his boastfulness, would not allow his relic to go nameless into the future. He attached his memoir and thereby secured a future of safekeeping.
Pascoe also reminds us that the Romantic era was a time when this notion that objects kept in a box or encased behind glass - secular relics - are imbued with a lasting sediment of their owners, and often characterise the public commemoration of fallen heroes. Though Allen can't be considered a hero, his autobiography characterises him as a combination anti-hero and victim. He was dealt a set of bad circumstances and tried to rise above them only to be tripped up by his fellow men. Suffering the death of his mother at the age of three and being abandoned by his father left him defiant:
"I was naturally hasty in my temper, active and ambitious, and inclined to have my own way in most respects."
Being short-changed and double-crossed by later employers "tended to sour my mind and cause distrust of the honesty of my fellow men." Still, throughout the narrative he makes a point of telling self-congratulatory anecdotes, such as returning a stolen watch to its owner. Even though he has wronged his victims, Allen characterises himself as victimised. He elevates himself in the perceived eyes of his readers by pointing out his few instances of compassion By doing so, he shows that he still exhibited good qualities long after they should have been eradicated by the bad luck and bad treatment he has received. Allen wants to be remembered as the bad man with a good heart. His book is a monument to that sentiment. Whether readers believe his reminiscences or his deathbed repentance, they come to know him through the text and find the author - as Allen had hoped - more unfortunate than hateful.
Accusations of unfair treatment by prison staff and blame placed on others for his own misfortune end toward the conclusion of the narrative, when a severe cough impels him to allow the prison officials to continue his story. They offer up the facts: Trials in 1835 and 1846 resulted in hung juries. He made another desperate attempt to escape by rushing his guards, but was afterwards held without chains and allowed to work and go into the yard, and so was obedient. But as much as he tried the patience of the guards, he commanded the respect of the successive wardens, with the one who completed his narrative referring to his "determined character and daring courage." Although the warden states that Allen declares the narrative to be true in its entirety, including the section written when Allen was no longer able to dictate, the prisoner may have allowed his captor to paint a more convincing picture of his conversion and redemption than may have actually been the case. Allen may have allowed this in exchange for the promise to posthumously bind the book in his skin.
Why did Allen concretise his existence in this way? Much of the answer lies in Allen's agency. Not only confined, but often chained and placed in solitary confinement, the prisoner demonstrated what little freedom he had through this posthumous directive. In Bookmen's Bedlam: An Olio of Literary Oddities, Walter Hart Blumenthal  claims that Allen left a note after one of his escapes from jail that read that he was "master of his own skin." Allen proved the statement true each time he sought his freedom and when he directed that his memoirs be bound in his skin after his death. Escape and self-binding were both a means of breaking out of boundaries.
His anthropodermic binding was not only an example of his agency, but an act of defiance, causing others to perform the rude act of flaying his body and tanning his skin. The messy process literally and figuratively objectified him, but by preparing his binding to enclose his story - of which he, of course, was the protagonist - the procedure secures Allen's status as subject, never object. The book that Allen has become is static, but his subjectivity lives on. To paraphrase what he dictated in his memoir, he now "commenced passive operations." And although he only exists as a book, his presence still demands attention - a respectful means of storage or display, an obligation to keep the story and the object intact.
Like those whose skin was used to bind their trial transcripts, Allen was an imprisoned felon, but his book is commemorative rather than punitive because he chose to memorialise himself. Allen, probably one of the worst-behaved inmates at the Massachusetts State Prison, had his story transcribed by the prison warden himself. So his exertion of control began with the warden, to whom he told his story and convinced of his redemption, possibly duplicitously. His control operated on the men who flayed, tanned, and bound his skin, whether they knew him or - as in the case of the binder - were unaware that the remains were Allen's. And his control extended to the intended recipients of the book, attaching his identity to Fenno and Dr Bigelow by bestowing this very personal gift on them. His control even extends to the unintended recipients of the book, Fenno family members and Boston Athenaeum visitors, for whom the book has become an heirloom or a memento mori. Allen may or may not have envisioned a future in which his anthropodermic book moved from Fenno family curio to the curated museum object it is today, but because it was never destined to be given a "proper burial" and is now exhibited in a public venue, more of us know him, and that was his intention.
So The Highwayman survives because the narrator had a chip on his shoulder, a good imagination, and a keen sense of irony. He has compelled lawmen to perpetuate the memory of a lawbreaker. The physical act of this perpetuation was both gruesome (which punished his punishers) and effective (which served his own egotistic need). Although we have no face to associate with the narrator, we do have an authentic bodily presence. Allen comes across as an individual in word and deed, and this individuality is complemented by a named identity. The resultant anthropodermic book has a symbolism that surpasses that surpasses the life of a single person, but has no social or political history that is not directly associated with James Allen. The man, who lived from 1809 to 1837, directed and achieved his own posterity with more mastery than he carried out any of his crimes.
1 Quotes that follow are from James Allen, Narrative of the Life of James Allen, alias George Walton, alias Jonas Pierce, alias James H. York, alias Burley Grove - The Highwayman: Being his Death-Bed Confession to the Warden of the Massachusetts State Prison (Boston: Harrington & Co, 1837), available at www.bostonathenaeum.org [Back]
2 Pascoe, Judith, The Hummingbird Cabinet: A Rare and Curious History of Romantic Collectors (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005). [Back]
3 Blumenthal, Walter Hart, 'Not for the Thin-Skinned' in Bookmen's Bedlam: An Olio of Literary Oddities (Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1955), 76-93. [Back]