A Book by Its Cover: The strange history of books bound in human skin
October 23, 2016 7:32 PM   Subscribe

"Anthropodermic bibliopegy, or books bound in human skin," writes Megan Rosenbloom in Lapham's Quarterly, "are some of the most mysterious and misunderstood books in the world’s libraries and museums. The historical reasons behind their creation vary [...] The best evidence most of these alleged skin books have ever had were rumors and perhaps a pencil-written note inside that said 'bound in human skin'...until now." Anthropodermic biblipegy on Metafilter previously and previously. Warning: links may contain details disturbing for some.

Rosenbloom continues: Scratching the surface of the history of any real human-skin book usually reveals a doctor was the one wielding the knife. At a time when physicians were climbing social classes and enjoying the trappings of their new wealth and status—including becoming collectors of fine art and books—at least a few chose to preserve the hides of deceased indigent patients to bind copies of their own work or of those that they admired, like anatomist Andreas Vesalius.

Megan Rosenbloom is a member of The Anthropodermic Book Project. To separate fact from legend, the project has tested (or is in the process of testing) 30 books out of some 47 that have been identified as potential instances of anthropodermic bibliopegy. The method they have adopted for these tests is peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF). According to Rosenbloom in the Newsletter of the Archivists and Librarians in the History of the Health Sciences (pdf), the project uses PMF because other testing methods have not been reliable:
The previous literature on this practice is problematic. Most of what exists – whether it stems from early 20th century book trade publications and newspapers or medical and library journals – rehashes long-held rumors with little investigation of historical or scientific fact. Unsubstantiated claims (like the existence of a French Revolutionary-erahouse of horrors in Meudon where human skin culottes and books were made from the aristocracy) were repeated throughout the years without any basis in reality. I have been unable to uncover any attempts at creating a census of these kinds of books in public collections.

Any previous attempts at testing relied on subjective visual inspection. The advent of DNA testing held some initial promise, but DNA degrades over time and that degradation is hastened by the chemical processes that turn a hide into leather. Also DNA tests are too sensitive and can result in false positives triggered from previous handling by human hands.
As noted in their FAQ, Brown University's John Hay Library currently has three such books in its collection, Vesalius' De Humani Corporis Fabrica (4th Edition), Adolphe Belot's Mademoiselle Giraud, my wife, and two copies of Hans Holbein's Dance of Death. The catalog entries for each note that "The results of a peptide mass fingerprint analysis, conducted in April 2015 by Dan Kirby, indicate that the binding material is the skin of a human being or that of a closely related primate."

Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh has in its collection a pocketbook made from the skin of William Burke, who was executed, along with William Hare, for the 1828 murders of 16 people, whose corpses they sold to the anatomist Robert Knox (previously here).

The Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia is "home to the largest collection of confirmed anthropodermic books" in the United States. Records exist that allow the names and stories of some of the people behind these books to be told, including that of Mary Lynch, who died horribly of both tuberculosis and trichinosis in 1869:
On Wednesday, July 15, 1868, a 28 year old woman named Mary Lynch was admitted to Old Blockley, Philadelphia’s almshouse, officially known as Philadelphia General Hospital (PGH). Old Blockley was located at what is now the intersection of 34th Street and Civic Center Boulevard, on the southeast corner of the University of Pennsylvania. Blockley was where you went when you could not afford care in a private hospital.


Mary spent a little over six months in Old Blockley. She died on Saturday, January 16, 1869. Due to the wasting nature of both the tuberculosis and the trichinosis, Mary, who was 5’ 2” tall, weighed 60 pounds when she died. She was buried later in January in a pauper’s grave on the Almshouse property. No specific dates of burial were provided for patients who died at Old Blockley.
The attending physician who performed her autopsy would later use her skin to partially bind three books in 1887, and included enough information in one of them for her identity to be established:
In each, he inscribes a brief note about Mary, protecting her identity by calling her “Mary L___.” One book, though, contains more than enough information about Mary, her admission and death dates, and her cause of death to be able to locate her in the PGH records at the Philadelphia City Archives.

In 2013, Harvard's Houghton Library was able to confirm that it did indeed have an instance of anthropodermic bibliopegy in its collection:

From Harvard College Library's Ask a Librarian service:
Q. Does Harvard have any books bound in human skin?

A. Yes, we do have books believed to be bound in human skin.

There are three anthropodermic books that have been suspected at Harvard. For more information, please see this blog post from the Houghton Library and this article from the Harvard Crimson.

One of the three, the volume at the Harvard Law School, has been conclusively proven NOT to be bound in human skin. Please see the Law School Library Blog post for details.
Paul Needham, a librarian at Princeton University's Schiede Library, was not impressed by the Houghton Library's public response to the matter, and proposed a proper burial of the human skin on the volume, saying in A Binding of Human Skin in the Houghton Library: A Recommendation (pdf):
I was not happy with the Houghton blog, which was shocking in its crudity, opening with the sentence, “Good news for fans of anthropodermic bibliopegy, bibliomaniacs, and cannibals alike.” I wrote to the Houghton and complained about this sentence, which was removed at my request. (The blog’s web address, incorporating “caveat-lecter”, still maintains the jocular tone.)

As I have recently written in emails to members of the Houghton staff, I believe there is a fundamental ethical question which the Houghton Library has not addressed: what should a library do when it learns that it is the owner of a book bound in human skin? My own suggestion, which I will enlarge on, was that the appropriate action would be to remove the skin from the volume and give it respectful burial, “in commemoration of an unknown and powerless human whose rights were so egregiously violated by a member of the medical profession.”
posted by mandolin conspiracy (7 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
mandolin conspiracy hereby wins Halloween. forever. this is by far the creepiest/scariest post in the history of MetaFilter. there can be no further competition. the best you can get is 2nd place (and that's a tight race right now between David S. Pumpkin and Donald J. Trumpkin).
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:05 PM on October 23, 2016 [4 favorites]

Thanks for this fantastic post.

I was told - secondhand and ultimately from a tour guide at an Irish castle, I don't know which one - that in the Middle Ages, young Irish girls from very poor families would offer themselves for sale to be killed and made into binding leather, this being the best they could do for their parents, and less expensive than fine calf binding for the monks. I am highly inclined to doubt it, but I think the story of poor Mary Lynch is almost close enough to have inspired it. I wonder if that doctor's wives knew, or if it would have surprised them if they didn't.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:15 PM on October 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I literally just came MiFi after giving my self the screaming fantods watching black mirror.... And this is what greets me... October you truly are the spookiest. Congrats on a kickass post
posted by midmarch snowman at 9:39 PM on October 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

The Moyses Hall Museum apparently holds an account of the Red Barn murder/William Corder's trial that is bound in William Corder's skin.
posted by halcyonday at 3:24 AM on October 24, 2016

I went to a college that had a book bound in human skin in its special collections room. I never saw it, but everyone who was allowed to touch it said that it was the creepiest feeling, completely unlike any leather they'd felt before, and that it felt almost alive. It was tested a few years ago and found to be sheepskin.

Absolutely fantastic post.
posted by specialagentwebb at 5:47 AM on October 24, 2016 [11 favorites]


When asked "So what did you do over the weekend?" at work this morning, "Read up on books bound with human skin" was not, uh, one of the answers I gave.

Was kinda disappointed that the Surgeon's Hall Museum was closed for renovations when we were in Scotland last year. It was on the list of places I wanted to visit.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:13 PM on October 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah. My family said they didn't want me to do it when I asked. Spoilsports.
posted by mdoar at 9:37 AM on October 25, 2016

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