Displaying the flayed skin of defeated enemies dates back to ancient times. For the Assyrians who inhabited Mesopotamia around 2500 BC, it proved a common fate for dissidents and defeated enemies.
In the New World, the Aztecs of the 15th century AD practiced highly ritualized skinning ceremonies reserved for prisoners of war. Believed to appease the god Xipe Totec, priests would treat the POWs’ removed dermis with yellow dye and wear it for special occasions.
While you may have heard about some of these grisly tidbits in a history class or documentary, you’re likely less familiar with the more recent history of binding books with human skin. Yet, it’s just as grisly in a “civilized” sort of way. Here’s what we know about the macabre practice.
Monstrous Book Binding
In 1869, an impoverished woman in her late 20s died in Ward 27 of the Philadelphia Almshouse and Hospital (a.k.a. “Old Blockley”), the result of tuberculosis and trichinosis. She weighed just 60 pounds, and her name was Mary Lynch. John Stockton Hough, the physician who carried out her autopsy, devised a grotesque way for Lynch to prove “useful” in death.
Removing a section of skin from Lynch’s thigh, he tanned it in the hospital’s basement using a bedpan filled with human urine. (Because of its high pH, urine proves ideal for tanning and softening skins.) He later used the resultant “leather” to bind three anatomical texts on human reproduction. Today, the books remain housed at the Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, a strange homage to this young woman’s premature demise.
Mental Patients and Rare Books
The medical books, once owned by Hough, are not an anomaly, however. Other books with human dermis for binding have also turned up over the years. At Harvard University, researchers recently confirmed that a book in their collection, Des Destinées de l’Âme (Destinies of the Soul) by Arsène Houssaye, is another example of anthropodermic bibliopegy. (That’s the scientific term for books bound in human leather.)
What do we know about the history of the book? Houssaye gave a copy to his friend, Dr. Ludovic Bouland, who handled the grisly and bizarre binding process. Bouland confirmed as much with a handwritten note describing his binding choice:
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. It is interesting to see the different aspects that change this skin according to the method of preparation to which it is subjected. Compare for example with the small volume I have in my library, Sever. Pinaeus de Virginitatis notis which is also bound in human skin but tanned with sumac.
Bouland used the hide of an unclaimed female mental patient who died of a stroke. But unfortunate patients weren’t the only individuals to be immortalized in this horrific way. There are also a handful of cases of criminals whose corpses lent material for books. Many of these books showcase the date of the criminal’s execution stamped on their covers.
Books Crafted from the Corpses of Criminals
The Bristol Record Office made such a book from the skin of the first man hanged at Bristol Gaol. The book’s embossed dark brown leather came from 18-year-old John Horwood, executed for murdering Eliza Balsum. Within the book are details from the crime, which took place in 1821.
According to the official account, Horwood became increasingly infatuated with Balsum before her death, even threatening to kill her on one occasion. One day, while she went to fetch water, Horwood bludgeoned her with a large stone. She later succumbed to her injuries. He was put on trial and summarily executed for the offense. A surgeon named Richard Smith dissected his corpse at a public lecture at the Bristol Royal Infirmary. Like Hough, Smith decided to keep a hunk of flesh for book crafting purposes. Another gruesome artifact was born.
He had the book embossed with a skull and crossbones image and the phrase, “Cutis Vera Johannis Horwood” in gilt letters. The words translate, “The Actual Skin of John Horwood.” Today, the artifact remains one of the most popular attractions at Bristol’s M Shed Museum.
Skin Deep: Identifying Anthropodermic Bibliopegy
At this point, you may be wondering how scientists verify that these purported human skin books are indeed real. A medical librarian at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, Megan Rosenbloom, is working with a team of researchers to answer this question.
Challenges have arisen in the attempt to establish the authenticity of these tomes. For example, the tanning process corrupts the DNA of the bindings, rendering genetic testing impossible. Some individuals have attempted to differentiate human from animal hide through identification of the pores in the leather. But this proves very subjective. Until recently, the best evidence in existence for these books being anthropodermic came through rumors and pencil-written notes inside some volumes.
But Rosenbloom’s team, which includes Richard Hark, a chemistry professor at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, and Daniel Kirby, a private conservation scientist, has pioneered a new process. Hark and Kirby are also both members of the Anthropodermic Book Project.
They rely on peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF) to determine whether the books in question are authentic or not. The testing proves authoritative, inexpensive, and only requires a minute amount of the book’s binding. Since 2014, the Mutter Museum has tested more than 30 books in its collection. Sixteen have proven to be the real deal.
A Long Tradition of Anthropodermic Bibliopegy
Examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy date back to 13th-century Europe. However, the practice didn’t start trending until the late 16th and early 17th centuries. By the 19th century, some doctors bound books on human anatomy with these skins. They considered it a “fitting gesture.”
Researchers, like Hark, argue that the books were a way to honor individuals who may not have survived but still contributed to medicine. He likens it to the practice of keeping an urn of ashes or a lock of hair.
Others, like Beth Lander, who oversees the Mutter Museum’s human skin books, see more sinister motivations. She believes that many doctors employed at almshouses looked on their patients with a certain measure of contempt. She notes, “There was the perception that if they could not serve society adequately in their lives, they could then be of service in their deaths.”
Of course, some local governments also commissioned these books as the ultimate exercise of punishment for criminal acts. No matter the purpose, the vast majority were crafted by doctors with ready access to corpses for dissection. As Rosenbloom and her team continue their research, they will undoubtedly uncover more of these dreadful artifacts.
By Engrid Barnett, contributor for Ripleys.com