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Scott Troyan
Scott Troyan

The Quest to Discover the World's Books Bound in Human Skin

Scott Troyan
Scott Troyan

While it may seem like the stuff of horror movies, an assortment of well-regarded libraries and museums in Europe and the United States own books bound in a very controversial material: human skin.

According to experts, the practice of binding books with human leather ended around the late 19th century, and there are no known 20th-century examples. Today, the idea seems disrespectful if not repugnant, and there are often strong objections to the public display of such books, even as historical specimens. That's why libraries and museums increasingly want to know whether the books in their collections purportedly bound in human skin are the real thing.

On October 5, staff at the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia—a renowned collection of medical specimens, artifacts and equipment—announced the results of scientific testing on five of their books whose inscriptions indicated they had been bound in human leather. The testing proved the bindings really did come from people, making the Mütter home to the largest known collection of books bound in human skin in the United States.

Curator Anna Dhody’s announcement came at the beginning of a panel discussion on the subject of anthropodermic bibliopegy, as the practice is known, which was part of a two-day conference on mourning and mortality called Death Salon, co-sponsored by the Mütter. The other panelists were Daniel Kirby, an analytical chemist at Harvard’s Peabody Museum; Richard Hark, chemistry chair at Juniata College; and Megan Rosenbloom, a medical librarian at the University of Southern California and director of Death Salon. Together with Dhody, they’ve recently formed a multidisciplinary team seeking to convince libraries and museums across the country to use the best available science to test the books reputed to be bound in human skin in their collections. They hope to use this data to create an authoritative list of such books, since none exists. 

Left to right: Daniel Kirby, Richard Hark, Megan Rosenbloom, and Anna Dhody. Photo by Scott Troyan.

The earliest examples of books bound in human skin date from the 17th century and were produced in Europe and the United States. According to medical historian Lindsey Fitzharris, the books were generally created for three reasons: punishment, memorialization, and collecting. 

Many of the earliest examples relate to punishment. England’s Murder Act of 1751 stipulated that those convicted of murder would not only be executed but, as an additional deterrent, could not be buried. Until its repeal in 1832, the law required that murderers either be publicly dissected or “hanged in chains.” In some cases, making items out of criminals’ skins provided yet another way to ensure the body stayed aboveground.

A famous example of such punishment was the body of William Burke, who, with his accomplice William Hare, killed 16 people in a 10-month period in 1828 in Edinburgh, Scotland, and then sold the bodies to medical schools. After being caught, executed, and dissected, some of Burke's skin was used to make a pocketbook as a final—and lasting—humiliation. The Burke pocketbook is now on display at Surgeon’s Hall Museum in Edinburgh.

Others gave their skin willingly for the purposes of memorialization. One example of this is on display at the Boston Athenaeum Library. The book, published in 1837, has the highly informative title of 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. Allen had requested that his skin be used after his death as the cover for two copies of a book chronicling his crimes. One copy would go to John Fenno Jr., the only man known to have stood up to him, and another to his doctor.

The third reason for binding books in human leather was a desire by doctors to create rare items for their personal book collections. The Mütter Museum’s recently tested books fall under this category. They were bound by Philadelphia doctor John Stockton Hough in the late 19th century, using the skin from the thighs of a woman referred to by him only as “Mary L___.”

Earlier this month, Philadelphia College of Physicians librarian Beth Lander uncovered Mary L’s identity, using research in the city’s public records and medical information about her contained in one of the books. Lander discovered that Mary L was Mary Lynch, a poor Irish immigrant who died in 1869 of trichinosis, a parasitic infection she contracted through pork consumption while in the hospital for tuberculosis. Hough was a resident physician and removed a graft of her skin for tanning shortly after her death, holding on to it for approximately 20 years before using it to bind the books.

Philadelphia College of Physicians librarian Beth Lander. Photo by Scott Troyan.

Some of the Mütter Museum's books bound in Mary L's skin. Photo by Scott Troyan.

The Mütter staff didn’t seem particularly disturbed to discover their collection includes true anthropodermic books, but for some institutions, such books are distraction so unwelcome that tests showing the books are bound in ordinary, non-human leather are a relief.

This was the case at Juniata College in Pennsylvania, where a copy of Biblioteca Politica, a 17th-century book on the divine right of kings, had become an object of endless morbid fascination among the student body—particularly around Halloween. That ended last fall when Kirby’s team at Harvard conducted PMF (peptide mass fingerprinting) testing on the title. The tests showed that the book was in fact bound in sheepskin, not human skin. Hark, the chemistry chair at Juniata, said, “this made the librarians very happy, [but some] students were rather disappointed.”

PMF was also the technique used on the Mütter titles. According to Kirby, PMF provides a highly reliable, cost-effective (less than $100), and relatively non-invasive way to test a book’s binding. Using microscopic samples from the book’s cover, PMF identifies the proteins present, and can accurately pinpoint the species of mammal a skin sample is from—including humans.

In the past, books bound in human skin had often been tested using hair follicle analysis—a visual examination method that relies on comparing the shape and distribution of human hair follicles with those of other species. In a follow-up email to mental_floss, Kirby explained that this method is “very subjective” and dependent on how well the material has been preserved. “There can also be a lot of variability in the appearance of the follicle pattern depending on processing, dyeing, stretching, etc,” he said. Follicle analysis has also led to false positives. And Kirby says DNA analysis usually isn’t possible, since the tanning process destroys DNA.

Aided by the promise of PMF, Rosenbloom and Hark have been leading outreach efforts to sometimes-reticent libraries to try and convince them to test their books. Their team explains the testing process to the institutions, and notes that libraries are under no obligation to make the results public. In addition to the Mütter and Juniata, Harvard has also recently disclosed that PMF testing found that just one of their three reputed anthropodermic books was in fact bound with human skin.

Most institutions the team has worked with are keeping quiet, however. During her presentation at Death Salon, Rosenbloom did share the aggregate results so far: Out of the 22 books the group has tested, 12 have been found to be made out of human skin. According to one of Rosenbloom’s slides, the remainder were found to have been bound with “an assortment of sheep, cow, and faux (!) leather.” The team has also identified an additional 16 books that they have not yet tested—and is working to locate more.

Decisions about whether and how to display books bound in human skin will no doubt remain tricky for libraries and museums to navigate. However, PMF testing will at least provide an opportunity to make informed decisions about whether they’re holding the genuine article. As Kirby noted at Death Salon, with these items, “you really can’t tell a book by its cover.”

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The Little Known Airport Bookstore Program That Can Get You Half of What You Spend on Books Back
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Inflight entertainment is a necessary evil, but the price can quickly add up without the proper planning. Between Wi-Fi access and TV/movie packages, you can run into all kinds of annoying additional charges that will only increase the longer your flight is. Thankfully, there is one way to minimize the cost of your inflight entertainment that’s a dream for any reader.

Paradies Lagardère, which runs more than 850 stores in 98 airports across the U.S. and Canada, has an attractive Read and Return program for all the books they sell. All you have to do is purchase a title, read it, and return it to a Paradies Lagardère-owned shop within six months and you'll get half your money back. This turns a $28 hardcover into a $14 one. Books in good condition are re-sold for half the price by the company, while books with more wear and tear are donated to charity.

If you haven’t heard of Paradies Lagardère, don’t worry—you’ve probably been in one of their stores. They’re the company behind a range of retail spots in airports, including licensed ventures like The New York Times Bookstore and CNBC News, and more local shops exclusive to the city you're flying out of. They also run restaurants, travel essentials stores, and specialty shops. 

Not every Paradies Lagardère store sells books, though, and the company doesn’t operate out of every airport, so you’ll need to do a little research before just buying a book the next time you fly. Luckily, the company does have an online map that shows every airport it operates out of and which stores are there.

There is one real catch to remember: You must keep the original receipt of the book if you want to return it and get your money back. If you're the forgetful type, just follow PureWow’s advice and use the receipt as a bookmark and you’ll be golden.

For frequent flyers who plan ahead, this program can ensure that your inflight entertainment will never break the bank.

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Musée du Louvre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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How a Notorious Art Heist Led to the Discovery of 6 Fake Mona Lisas
Musée du Louvre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Musée du Louvre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Human civilization has changed a lot over the past five millennia—but our instinct toward fakery, fraud, and flimflam seems to have remained relatively stable. In their new book Hoax: A History of Deception (Black Dog & Leventhal), Ian Tattersall and Peter Névraumont sift through 5000 years of our efforts to con others with scams and shakedowns of every description, from selling nonexistent real estate to transatlantic time travel. This excerpt reveals a convoluted art heist that netted not one, but six, of Leonardo da Vinci's most famous portrait(s).

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is, by a wide margin, the world’s best-known Renaissance painting. The pride of Paris’s Louvre museum, it is hard nowadays for a visitor to get a good look at. Not only do heavy stanchions and a substantial velvet rope keep art lovers at bay, but a jostling horde of phone-pointing tourists typically accomplishes the same thing even more effectively. While you can expect to scrutinize Leonardo’s nearby Virgin and Child with Saint Anne up close and in reasonable tranquility, you are lucky to catch more than a glimpse of the Mona Lisa over the heads of the heaving crowd. And that’s just getting to admire the painting: With elaborate electronic protection and constantly circulating guards, stealing the iconic piece is pretty much unthinkable.

At a time when the standards of security were considerably more lax, around noon on Tuesday, August 22, 1911, horrified museum staff reported that the Mona Lisa was missing from her place on the gallery wall. The Louvre was immediately closed down and minutely searched (the picture’s empty frame was found on a staircase), and the ports and eastern land borders of France were closed until all departing traffic could be examined. To no avail. After a frantic investigation that temporarily implicated both the poet Guillaume Apollinaire and the then-aspiring young artist Pablo Picasso, all that was left was wild rumor: The smiling lady was in Russia, in the Bronx, even in the home of the banker J.P. Morgan.

Two years later the painting was recovered after a Florentine art dealer contacted the Louvre saying that it had been offered to him by the thief. The latter turned out to have been Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian artist who had worked at the Louvre on a program to protect many of the museum’s masterworks under glass.

Vincent Peruggia, Mona Lisa thief
Vincent Peruggia
Courtesy of Chronicle Books/Alamy

Peruggia reportedly told police that, early on the Monday morning before the theft was discovered—a day on which the museum was closed to the public—he had entered the Louvre dressed as a workman. Once inside, he had headed for the Mona Lisa, taken her off the wall and out of her frame, wrapped her up in his workman’s smock, and carried her out under his arm. Another version has Peruggia hiding in a museum closet overnight, but in any event the heist itself was clearly a pretty simple and straightforward affair.

Peruggia’s motivations appear to have been a little more confused. The story he told the police was that he had wanted to return the Mona Lisa to Italy, his and its country of origin, in the belief that the painting had been plundered by Napoleon—whose armies had indeed committed many similar trespasses in the many countries they invaded.

But even if he believed his story, Peruggia had his history entirely wrong. For it had been Leonardo himself who had brought the unfinished painting to France, when he became court painter to King François I in 1503. After Leonardo died in a Loire Valley château in 1519, the Mona Lisa was legitimately purchased for the royal collections.

So it didn’t seem so far-fetched when, in a 1932 Saturday Evening Post article, the journalist Karl Decker gave a significantly different account of the affair. According to Decker, an Argentinian con man calling himself Eduardo, Marqués de Valfierno, had told him that it was he who had masterminded Peruggia’s theft of the Mona Lisa. And that he had sold the painting six times!

Valfierno’s plan had been a pretty elaborate one, and it had involved employing the services of a skilled forger who could exactly replicate any stolen painting—in the Mona Lisa’s case, right down to the many layers of surface glaze its creator had used. By Decker’s account, Valfierno not only sold such fakes on multiple occasions, but used them to increase the confidence of potential buyers, ahead of the heist, that they would be getting the real thing after the theft.

The fraudster would take a victim to a public art gallery and invite him to make a surreptitious mark on the back of a painting that he had scheduled to be stolen. Later Valfierno would present him with the marked canvas, which had allegedly been stolen and replaced with a copy.

This trick was actually accomplished by secretly placing the copy behind the real painting, and removing it after the buyer had applied his mark. According to Valfierno, this was an amazingly effective sales ploy: So effective, indeed, that by his account he managed to pre-sell the scheduled-to-be-stolen Mona Lisa to six different United States buyers, all of whom actually received copies.

Mona Lisa returned to the Uffizi Gallery in 1913
Museum officials present the (real) Mona Lisa after its return to Florence, Italy's Uffizi Gallery in 1913.
The Telegraph, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Those copies had been smuggled into America prior to the heist at the Louvre, when nobody was on the lookout for them, and the well-publicized theft itself served to validate their apparent authenticity when they were delivered to the marks in return for hefty sums in cash.

According to Valfierno, the major problem in all this turned out to be Peruggia, who stole the stolen Mona Lisa from him and took it back to Italy. Still, when he was caught trying to dispose of the painting there, Peruggia could not implicate Valfierno without compromising his own story of being a patriotic thief, so the true scheme remained secret. Similarly, when the original Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre, Valfierno’s buyers could assume that it was a copy—and in any case, they would hardly have been in a position to complain.

Decker’s story of Valfierno’s extraordinary machinations caused a sensation, and it rapidly became accepted as the truth behind the Mona Lisa’s disappearance. Perhaps this is hardly surprising because, after all, Peruggia’s rather prosaic account somehow seems a little too mundane for such an icon of Renaissance artistic achievement. The more flamboyant Valfierno version was widely believed, and is still repeated over and over again, including in two recent books.

Yet there are numerous problems with Decker’s Saturday Evening Post account, including the fact that nobody has ever been able to show for certain that Valfierno actually existed (though you can Google a picture of him). Only Peruggia’s role in the disappearance of the Mona Lisa seems to be reasonably clear-cut. Still, although it remains up in the air whether Valfierno faked his account, or whether Decker fabricated both him and his report, the Mona Lisa that hangs in the Louvre today is probably the original.

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