Imagine yourself walking down a splendid, sunlit aisle, surrounded on both sides by towering shelves containing a massive collection of quaint, worn-out books. Your nostrils fill with the vintage smell of the library as you carefully draw out a heavy, old book shrouded in what appears to be perfectly tanned golden-brown hide, presumably having survived years and years of blight and decay. There’s a catch though: the book you are holding might just be bound with human skin.
The practise of binding books with human skin goes as far back as the 16th century. The term for this esoteric process is ‘anthropodermic bibliopegy’, and contrary to your initial reactions of horror and disgust, experts say that this practice, after all, would not have been as repulsive back in the day. It became a subject of fascination around the 1800s, and its realisation inadvertently called for contributions from three rather unlikely groups of people.
Criminals, doctors, and bodysnatchers
The rise in the custom of binding books with human skin can be unequivocally credited to the growing interest in human anatomy. One of the oldest anthropodermic specimens can be found in Bristol’s M Shed Museum. The book contains the details of a crime committed in 1821 by an eighteen-year-old miner’s son, John Horwood. Infatuated with a woman whom he had already threatened to kill, one day, he grabbed a stone and beat her skull to pieces. He became the first person to be hanged at the Bristol New Gaol.
After the execution, Horwood’s body was dissected by a surgeon named Richard Smith for a lecture at the Bristol Royal Infirmary. Smith, inexplicably decided that it would be a good idea to have a part of the skin from Horwood’s corpse tanned, and eventually had it used for binding a compilation of papers about the case.
On the other side of the Atlantic, somewhat identical events were taking place. James Allen, a highway robber from Massachusetts wrote an autobiography while imprisoned, and his dying wish was that his book be bound with his own skin. Now exhibited at the Boston Athenaeum, this uncanny work is said to be one of the most famous displays of anthropodermic bibliopegy. However, things were to turn slightly more grotesque after the end of the Civil War.
Medical schools flourished after the War, and there was a growing demand for cadavers amongst practicing doctors and surgeons, whose needs were not being met by the legally available corpses. The solution was to turn to illicit bodysnatchers — people who desecrated graves to steal corpses and then supplied them to different people for different purposes. Medical practitioners formed a large section of the consumer base for these defiled bodies and had the liberty to utilize the dermis to cover books and to keep them as personal keepsakes or for memorializing the dead.
The search for human books
In 2014, a book at Harvard’s Houghton Library was confirmed by scientists to be bound in human skin. Titled Des Destinées de l’Ame (“The Destinies of the Soul”) by French writer Arsène Houssaye, the book was determined to be from the mid-1880s. It’s believed that Houssaye gave the book to his friend Dr. Ludovic Bouland, who used the skin of one of his female mental patients to do the binding. The tome contains a note from Bouland himself:
“This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman.”
This dark revelation spurred an unexpected interest in searching and testing for more such books. In March 2015, chemists Dr. Daniel Kirby and Dr. Richard Hark confirmed that three more books at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia were bound with the skin of a trichinosis patient, Mary Lynch, who had died at the Philadelphia General Hospital in 1869. A few months later, Mütter Museum curator and anthropologist Anna Dhody along with Kirby, Hark, and librarian Megan Rosenbloom, formed “The Anthropodermic Book Project”. They employed a simple and foolproof method called ‘Peptide Mass Fingerprinting’ for testing alleged books to check if they were of human origin. As of May 2019, the group has tested thirty-one books, of which eighteen have been ‘confirmed as human’.
In October 2020, Rosenbloom, who, besides being a librarian at UCLA, holds a speciality in medicinal history, published her debut book Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin. The book is an account of her riveting escapades around the world in pursuing human skin-bound books, from meeting scholarly experts to visiting rare and morbid archives, which included tanneries, morgues, and even ‘The Enfer’ — French for hell — a special wing in Bibliotheque Nationale de France (National Library of France), housing rare books and manuscripts of a salacious nature, and which may only be visited with authorization.
While most may perceive this grisly practice either with distaste or with a wholly academic eye, Rosenbloom urges readers to look at these pieces with a human lens. Exploited without consent even after death, these macabre relics of human history represent a people forgotten, yet immortalized.
“We can’t go back in time and stop anthropodermic books from being created,” writes Rosenbloom, “but since they exist, they have important lessons to teach us — if we’re willing to reckon with their dark past and all that it tells us about the culture in which they were created.”