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A Librarian's Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin

Megan Rosenbloom

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




The brass, wood, and glass cases gave the main exhibition hall of the Mütter Museum a warm and cozy feeling—which was odd, considering it was a room full of corpses. It was 2008, and I was in library school and working for a medical publisher. Often, after a docent shift at the nearby Rosenbach museum, I strolled through this world-renowned collection of medical oddities. Each time, I noticed something new or saw a familiar specimen in a different way. One day, I might linger in front of the liver shared by Chang and Eng Bunker (known as the original “Siamese Twins”); another I would marvel at a human colon longer than my car. The Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia is the kind of place that encourages a mix of eager fascination and quiet contemplation of mortality.

On the second floor stood an inconspicuous glass display case featuring leather-bound books. As a library school student who was falling in love with rare books, I found it peculiar to see a row of them displayed with their covers closed. When I noticed the captions inside the cases, I gasped and looked around, as if to find some passerby to corroborate what I was seeing. The text claimed that these books—and an accompanying leather wallet—were made from human skin.

As I read on, I was even more shocked to learn that doctors once made these skin books as luxury items for their private rare book collections. There was one doctor, Joseph Leidy, whose personal copy of his book, An Elementary Treatise on Human Anatomy, was bound in the skin of a Civil War soldier patient. In the letter that accompanied the book’s donation to the museum, Leidy’s descendant called it a “most cherished possession.”

I could imagine a serial killer making objects from human remains and keeping them as trophies. But a doctor? Was there a time when this practice was acceptable, when doctors could do this with their patients’ bodies? Most people today would assume that if a doctor did something so ghoulish, it must have happened during the Nazi era. But as I would later discover, there were no known human skin books from that time. Unlike the other human remains on display at the Mütter, these books with their covers closed could not teach medical students about rare diseases or conditions they might never be able to encounter at a patient’s bedside. A dead person’s skin had become a by-product of the dissection process, like a piece of animal leather after a butcher’s slaughter, harvested solely to make a doctor’s personal books more collectible and valuable. The fifty-cent phrase for this practice is anthropodermic bibliopegy: a combination of the Greek root words for human (anthropos), skin (derma), book (biblion), and fasten (pegia).

The implications of all this unfurled as I tried to put myself in the shoes of the respectable doctor bibliophile who would create such a monstrosity. Rare book collectors thrill at the unique specimen, as do I. But the ways in which many rare book collectors evaluate a book are surface level only: its age, its wear, the beauty of its illustrations, the ornamentation of its binding, and yes, of course, the nature of the content contained in its physical package. Looking at an anthropodermic book from this kind of bibliophilic viewpoint, the allure builds: it is far more expensive now, the material is rarer; perhaps there is a juicy provenance story that I can share with friends over drinks in the den, when I trot out my unusual treasure for them to see. But that’s the point where my imaginary bibliophile loses me. Those just could not be good enough reasons for creating books out of other humans.

From a more humanistic perspective, the interest in these strange books doesn’t fade, but becomes far richer. What were the circumstances in the life of the author responsible for the creation of a text someone saw fit to bind in human skin? Who were the people depicted in these anatomical illustrations? Who supplied the skin that was used for this anthropodermic book, and how did this fate befall them? Who were the binders who agreed to put the skin on the book, and who were the collectors who commissioned the anthropodermic bindings? Through whose hands did this book pass before it came to its current home at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and what context did each owner bring to the book and its history? Who are the stewards at these institutions who keep the book safe for future scholars, and who are those scholars that find their way to that book and interrogate it with their own special lenses? Whose stories am I missing altogether? When I rehumanize these books, suddenly the scores of human beings whom each book has touched cluster in my mind’s eye like a community together holding one small object. That was the story I wanted to know. That was the story I wanted to tell.

I never would have guessed that a lineup of innocent-looking books in a glass museum case would take over my life.

* * *

THE NOVEMBER SUN winked through my dirty car window as I rolled past the orange groves that line the entrance to the Huntington in San Marino, California. It was now 2015 and I was the librarian in charge of the medical collections at the University of Southern California. I nodded to the attendant and found my favorite parking spot. My Saturday morning ritual as a reader in the research library was beginning to feel pleasantly familiar. Most people know these idyllic grounds as the Huntington Gardens instead of by their full name (the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens), which is understandable given the estate’s astounding 120 acres of manicured greenery. Even though it’s right there in the name, most visitors seem to have no idea there’s a world-class library and research center in the midst of this paradise. Even my local friends have told me they have never been inside the buildings at the Huntington that display for the public rare books, artifacts from throughout the history of science, and fine art collections. Fewer still notice the massive Munger Research Center, despite its location near the front entrance. Every day, throngs of visitors coast right past the columned building on their way to the gardens with their strollers and cameras in tow. Their loss.

The white Munger building always felt like an iceberg to me, with its many floors underground housing a staggering eleven million items spanning ten centuries. Sometimes I would get hopelessly, pleasurably lost in its labyrinthine open stacks with nothing but a call number penciled on a piece of paper. More often I waited in the cushy reading room, gazing from bust to bust at the stony faces of the intellectual luminaries that line the walls, until a page retrieved my requested volume from the unfathomable depths. Another attendant would hand it to me and I would deposit it on a velvet book cradle that positions it for reading but puts less stress on the binding than opening it flat. The Huntington is one of the greatest independent research libraries in the world, but let’s face it: it’s the gardens that hundreds of thousands flock to every year. Being a reader there feels like breaching some inner sanctum.

On my mornings there panning for bibliographic gold in, say, the scrapbook of some master bookbinder or one of Jacques d’Agoty’s velvety anatomical atlases, I have felt awe and gratitude as a medical librarian to have this collection in my city, and excitement for what I might find. I had come a long way in the seven years since I first encountered human skin books at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. No longer did glass cases separate me from the artifacts that tickled my intellectual curiosity.

As I approached this hallowed place on this particular Saturday, I confronted a feeling that was new to me: fear. My tote bag contained a manila envelope that was packed with some gloves, a handful of small, conical plastic Eppendorf Tubes, and a metal scalpel with individually sealed blades. I started to sweat, feeling like I shouldn’t be allowed into the library with this contraband.

Stephen Tabor, the curator of rare books at the Huntington, was waiting for me at the security desk. We already knew each other; we’re both members of the Zamorano Club, a Southern California bibliophile society that is a convivial mix of rare book sellers, collectors, and librarians. But today there was some extra gravity in the air, because instead of coming to read the Huntington’s treasures, I was there to cut them. I planned to take minute pieces of two of them away to be scientifically tested; I wanted to find out whether the objects in question had the most macabre of distinctions—being made from human skin. The samples would come from a parchment note and a medical book entitled Anatomy Epitomized and Illustrated…, an alleged example of anthropodermic bibliopegy. This minor destruction was a necessary evil if we hoped to understand these mysterious collection items in a previously unimaginable way.

Anthropodermic bibliopegy has been a specter on the shelves of libraries, museums, and private collections for over a century. Human skin books—mostly made by nineteenth-century doctor bibliophiles—are the only books that are controversial not for the ideas they contain but for the physical makeup of the object itself. They repel and fascinate, and their very ordinary appearances mask the horror inherent in their creation. Anthropodermic books tell a complicated and uncomfortable tale about the development of clinical medicine and the doctoring class, and the worst of what can come from the collision of acquisitiveness and a distanced clinical gaze. The weight of these objects’ fraught legacy transfers to the institutions where they are housed, and the library and museum professionals who are responsible for them. Each owner handles this responsibility differently.

Very little is known about these books or even how many examples of this practice may exist. Often the lore surrounding anthropodermic books was passed down without any way of knowing whether they were indeed made out of human skin, and if they were, how they were created, and whose bodies they once were.

Only a year before, in 2014, after hundreds of years of whispers and allusions about anthropodermic books, the conservationists at Harvard Library had discovered that a simple scientific test could be employed to confirm definitively whether an alleged human skin book was genuine. Shortly thereafter, I joined forces with the chemist who carried out the Harvard test, another chemist, and the curator of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia to create the Anthropodermic Book Project. Our aim is to identify and test as many alleged anthropodermic books as possible and dispel long-held myths about the most macabre books in history. Sometimes the most unlikely candidates turn out to be real human skin, and some books with plausible pedigrees turn out to be frauds. As of this writing, my team has identified only about fifty alleged anthropodermic books in public collections and a few more in private hands. With such a small field of study, any test result could completely reshape our understanding of the scope of this practice. We have to approach every item objectively and let the science out the truth.

Tabor led me to an area of the Munger building I had never seen, where his colleagues from the conservation department stood, stone-faced, around some dark leather objects on a table. I could tell they were just as uncomfortable with this situation as I was—most librarians would feel squeamish about removing pieces of antique books, regardless of the purpose. I wished I had worn something more clinical than my cheery yellow cardigan; something like a white lab coat might have been more reassuring. Little did they know that this was my first time wielding the knife.

The objects I was testing that day at the Huntington were representative of the scope of what the Anthropodermic Book Project encounters. I had done some sleuthing and found that the book Anatomy Epitomized and Illustrated … was printed in 1737 and attributed to a writer called “M.N.,” who historians believe was Thomas Gibson, physician-general of the English army. Originally published in 1682, this book attempted to sum up all that was known about the structures of the human body and expanded on an even older manual compiled by dozens of anatomists. Many confirmed human skin books didn’t begin their print life in this controversial binding but were rebound by collectors, usually doctors who took the oldest or rarest texts in their private collections and rebound them in skin removed from a corpse during anatomical dissection. Doctor book collectors had access to this rarest of binding material, and the resulting books became far rarer and therefore more valuable. While I had been unable thus far to identify the doctor who created this wrinkly, dark brown leather book, it was previously owned by Dr. Blake Watson, the former obstetrics department chair at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, who then donated the book to the library at the Los Angeles County Medical Association (a far less famous LACMA than the museum that also bears that acronym). This library once contained a wealth of rare medical books and had a very active user base of doctor bibliophiles who also formed a Friends of the LACMA Library society. When the library closed, the books moved to the Huntington’s already formidable history of science collection, and the Friends of the LACMA group was eventually renamed the Southern California Society for the History of Medicine. The group continues to host lectures at the Huntington to this day, and I serve as their president. The provenance that I was able to uncover for Anatomy Epitomized and Illustrated … is characteristic of the way many alleged anthropodermic books pass through the hands of physician book collectors and end up in venerable institutions like the Huntington.

The other item I was sampling that day was an asymmetrical piece of parchment. It had a tawny appearance with darker patches throughout, especially around its brittle edges. With spellings and capitalizations unfamiliar in modern English (perhaps indicating illiteracy), the inscription told a harrowing tale:

This is the skin of a White Man, taken by a Ingen, Scalped and skinned Alive belly cut out. Tied to Bed of Cols and Rosted to Deth. A White skin if took is Prise of tribe. The Ingen from Ulisses use Pale Skin for money. We Are ordered to Albeny. If we kep our skin. 117 Brave Men are lost some are sick. Genl Sullivan’s ARMY. Luke Swaatland of Wyoming. Sept. 13 1779.

If true, this note pointed to a number of horrific allega- tions against Native Americans in New York around the Ameri- can Revolution. The author not only accused them of roasting a man on a bed of coals and flaying his skin to make this piece of parchment, but also charged an entire tribe with using White skin as currency.

There was a real Luke Swetland (not Swaatland) in that era from Wyoming Valley, Pennsylvania, who was kidnapped while canoeing on the Susquehanna River on August 25, 1778. His story was relayed in 1915 by his great-grandson Edward Merrifield in the book The Story of the Captivity and Rescue from the Indians of Luke Swetland: An Early Settler of the Wyoming Valley and a Soldier of the American Revolution. The narrative recounts Swetland’s forced travel to what is now Appleton, New York, where he became “grandson” to an elderly Native American woman and her granddaughters and did physical labor at their home. “The Indians were remarkably kind to me and made me a good many presents,” wrote Swetland in a diary entry featured in the book. “In many other ways they showed me great respect.”

Fourteen months after his abduction and following many botched escapes, Swetland successfully fled and returned to his family. “To them it at first seemed like an apparition,” Merrifield wrote of his great-grandfather’s return. “But there he truly was, in flesh and blood.”

Did Swetland write this desperate note on the preserved skin of another captive? I had my doubts. The note’s date struck me as too close to the date when he reunited with his family for it to have been written under immediate threat of torture. The spelling also made me a bit suspicious. Although the note was written right around the time that American English coalesced into standard, agreed-upon spellings,* Swetland’s grandson claimed he was an avid reader. He would probably have had a standard spelling of his own last name (though even that is not 100 percent certain, given the time period).

While I have skills that benefit the Anthropodermic Book Project, manual dexterity is not one of them. I am by all accounts a klutz, and envisioned impaling myself with the scalpel and contaminating the Huntington samples in the process. I held my breath as I tried to remove the smallest portion of leather possible from the antique book and the parchment, deposited the miniscule flakes into capped plastic tubes, and labeled them, then sent them to the chemists on my team to analyze via peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF), the same process the Harvard Library used in 2014.

The process goes like this: First, remove a tiny chunk of a book’s binding with a scalpel or sharp tweezers; if the chunk is visible to the human eye, it is more than enough. The sample is digested in an enzyme called trypsin and the mixture is dropped onto a MALDI (Matrix-Assisted Laser Desorption/Ionization) plate. The MALDI plate is placed into a mass spectrometer, where lasers irradiate the sample to identify its peptides (the short chains of amino acids that are the building blocks of proteins) and create a peptide mass fingerprint (PMF). The “fingerprint” looks like a line graph of peaks and valleys, and each fingerprint corresponds with an entry in a library of known examples from animals.

Each animal family shares a strain of protein markers that act as reference points scientists can use to distinguish one from another. As Daniel Kirby—the chemist who performed the first PMF tests on alleged anthropodermic books—explained to me, for some animal families (whales, for example) there are enough reference points and enough evolutionary variation among the species that make up a family to identify animals down to the species level. The Bovidae family of cloven-hoofed ruminants is very large, and its members share all but one of the same protein markers—but that last marker allows PMF to distinguish between sheep, goat, and cow leather, the three most common animal hides used in bookbinding. When the test is a match for the Hominidae family (known as the great apes), identifying a sample on the family level is as precise as the PMF test gets, because humans are too close in evolutionary time to the other members of the Hominidae family to have distinct protein markers from them. This imprecision might seem like a detriment, but it lends itself well to testing books bound in human skin, because if the markers match the Hominidae family, then it is almost definitely a human skin book. (I say almost definitely, because I have never seen or even heard of any book bound in the skin of another great ape, but reader, if you find one, do let me know.)

Copyright © 2020 by Megan Rosenbloom