CLOSE
Original image
Scott Troyan

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

Original image
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.”

Original image
Tyrannosaurus and Edmontosaurus, Ely Kish, c. 1976. © Canadian Museum of Nature
arrow
pretty pictures
10 Ways Artists Imagined Dinosaurs Before the 21st Century
Original image

In paleoart, “the lines between entertainment and science, kitsch and scholarship, are often vague," Ford writes in the preface to Paleoart. "This book is like a twofold time machine from a science-fiction comic i would have loved as a child. It allows us to go back in time to see what going back in time used to look like.”

Tyrannosaurus and Edmontosaurus, Ely Kish, c. 1976. © Canadian Museum of Nature

Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past explores the first 160 years of illustrating extinct species.

Original image
Evening Standard/Getty Images
arrow
literature
10 Things You Should Know About Ray Bradbury
Original image
Evening Standard/Getty Images

For such a visionary futurist whose predictions for the future often came true, Ray Bradbury was rather old-fashioned in many ways. In honor of what would be Bradbury's 97th birthday, check out a few fascinating facts about the literary genius. 

1. HE SCORED HIS FIRST WRITING GIG WHEN HE WAS STILL A TEEN. 

Most teenagers get a first job bagging groceries or slinging burgers. At the age of 14, Ray Bradbury landed himself a gig writing for George Burns and Gracie Allen’s radio show.

“I went down on Figueroa Street in front of the Figueroa Playhouse,” Bradbury later recalled. “I saw George Burns outside the front of the theater. I went up to him and said, ‘Mr. Burns, you got your broadcast tonight don’t you?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘You don’t have an audience in there do you?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Will you take me in and let me be your audience?’ So he took me in and put me in the front row, and the curtain went up, and I was in the audience for Burns and Allen. I went every Wednesday for the broadcast and then I wrote shows and gave them to George Burns. They only used one—but they did use it, it was for the end of the show.”

2. IT TOOK HIM 22 YEARS TO ASK A GIRL OUT.

At the age of 22, Bradbury finally summoned up the courage to ask a girl out for the first time ever. She was a bookstore clerk named Maggie, who thought he was stealing from the bookstore because he had a long trench coat on. They went out for coffee, which turned into cocktails, which turned into dinner, which turned into marriage, which turned into 56 anniversaries and four children. She was the only girl Bradbury ever dated. Maggie held down a full-time job while Ray stayed at home and wrote, something that was virtually unheard of in the 1940s.

3. HE IMPRESSED TRUMAN CAPOTE.

George Burns isn’t the only famous eye Bradbury caught. In 1947, an editor at Mademoiselle read Bradbury’s short story, “Homecoming,” about the only human boy in a family of supernatural beings. The editor decided to run the piece, and Bradbury won a place in the O. Henry Prize Stories for one of the best short stories of 1947. That young editor who helped Bradbury out by grabbing his story out of the unsolicited materials pile? Truman Capote.

4. HE HAD AN AVERSION TO CARS.

Charley Gallay/Getty Images

Not only did Bradbury never get a driver’s license, he didn’t believe in cars for anyone. His own personal aversion came from seeing a fatal car accident when he was just 16. In 1996, he told Playboy, “I saw six people die horribly in an accident. I walked home holding on to walls and trees. It took me months to begin to function again. So I don't drive. But whether I drive or not is irrelevant. The automobile is the most dangerous weapon in our society—cars kill more than wars do.”

5. HE WROTE FAHRENHEIT 451 IN JUST OVER A WEEK.

It took Bradbury just nine days to write Fahrenheit 451—and he did it in the basement of the UCLA library on a rented typewriter. (The title of his classic novel, by the way, comes from the temperature at which paper burns without being exposed to flame.)

6. HE DIDN'T ATTEND COLLEGE.

Though he wrote Fahrenheit 451 at UCLA, he wasn't a student there. In fact, he didn’t believe in college. “I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money,” Bradbury told The New York Times in 2009. “When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

7. HE LOATHED COMPUTERS.

Despite his writings about all things futuristic, Bradbury loathed computers. “We are being flimflammed by Bill Gates and his partners,” he told Playboy in 1996. “Look at Windows '95. That's a lot of flimflam, you know.” He also stated that computers were nothing more than typewriters to him, and he certainly didn’t need another one of those. He also called the Internet “old-fashioned": “They type a question to you. You type an answer back. That’s 30 years ago. Why not do it on the telephone, which is immediate? Why not do it on TV, which is immediate? Why are they so excited with something that is so backward?”

8. HE WAS PALS WITH WALT DISNEY.

Not only was Bradbury good friends with Walt Disney (and even urged him to run for mayor of Los Angeles), he helped contribute to the Spaceship Earth ride at Epcot, submitting a story treatment that they built the ride around.

He was a big fan of the Disney parks, saying, “Everyone in the world will come to these gates. Why? Because they want to look at the world of the future. They want to see how to make better human beings. That’s what the whole thing is about. The cynics are already here and they’re terrifying one another. What Disney is doing is showing the world that there are alternative ways to do things that can make us all happy. If we can borrow some of the concepts of Disneyland and Disney World and Epcot, then indeed the world can be a better place.”

9. HE WANTED HIS ASHES TO BE SENT TO MARS IN A SOUP CAN.

He once said that when he died, he planned to have his ashes placed in a Campbell’s Tomato Soup can and planted on Mars. Then he decided that he wanted to have a place his fans could visit, and thought he’d design his own gravestone that included the names of his books. As a final touch, a sign at his gravesite would say Place dandelions here, “as a tribute to Dandelion Wine, because so many people love it.” In the end, he ended up going with something a whole lot simpler—a plain headstone bearing his name and “Author of Fahrenheit 451.” Go take him some dandelions the next time you’re in L.A.—he’s buried at Westwood Memorial Park.

10. NASA PAID TRIBUTE TO HIM.

Perhaps a more fitting memorial is the one NASA gave him when they landed a rover on Mars a few months after Bradbury’s death in 2012: They named the site where Mars Curiosity touched down "Bradbury Landing."

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios