James Allen’s memoir of his days as a highwayman is one of the rarest books in the rare book collection of the Boston Athenaeum, America’s oldest private membership library. The one man who fought back when Allen attempted to rob him was John Fenno. This impressed Allen so much that he asked to have a copy of his memoir bound in skin from his own back and presented to Fenno.
But is this true?
Yes, within the past several years, the Library had a visitor:
The interpretation always accepted here has been that the highwayman’s own skin was used (as the book binder). This belief has recently been confirmed in a striking manner. A visitor to the Athenæum a few months ago announced himself as the son and namesake of one George Arnold, who did cataloguing work at this Library some ninety years ago. The visitor’s grandfather, Peter Low, had come to Boston from London, where his father and grandfather were in the book business. Here he was engaged in bookbinding, for the Old Corner Book Store and other clients. The grandson relates the story that the skin used for binding Walton’s book came from Massachusetts General Hospital on the very day of his death. Walton was a Jamaican mulatto, and the skin, taken from his back, had been treated to look like a gray deer skin. Peter Low had not realized at first the precise nature of the material placed in his hands. By the time his day’s work was done, however, he was in great distress of mind and nightmares filled the night that followed.
–Boston Athenaeum Website