Columns > Published on November 1st, 2022

Anthropodermic Bibliopegy: Books Bound In Human Skin

Why Bind A Book In Human Skin?

The history of books bound in human skin is pretty fascinating, in a macabre sort of way.

What? When it’s Halloween, you put skeletons on your front lawn, pose in front of your coffin bookshelves, but a book bound in human skin is too far?

The surviving books bound in human skin seem to be mostly books that were bound by doctors and surgeons, somewhere between the 1500s and the late 1800s.

Why doctors and surgeons? Well, they had easy access to human skin, printed books in need of covering, and the cash to pay a bookbinder for the custom job.

The books, content-wise, are all over the place, some being medical texts (fitting, if bizarre), poems by Phillis Wheatley (fairly inexplicable), and a memoir bound in the skin of its author, according to his wishes (perhaps the most appropriate, if the word "appropriate" has any place in this discussion whatsoever).

The motive for looking at a corpse and thinking the skin might make a good covering for a book is a little more difficult to figure.

Defining Something By What It's Not

It seems, for the most part, that books were not bound in human skin as…let’s call them “human trophies.” Human trophy taking seems differently motivated. Most human trophies are a lot simpler and easier to manage on a battlefield or in other situations. Guessing most soldiers don’t carry around bookbinding supplies…

The general sense I got from Dark Archives by Megan Rosenbloom is that these books weren't usually a "fuck you" to the skin's original owner. It wasn't like you used the skin of a fallen enemy, or, in a more personal version that'd make a good movie, a spouse who demanded you cook a meal every damn night, so you bound Joy of Cooking in their skin.

In one of the few cases where we know the motive, the book The Highwayman: Narrative of the Life of James Allen alias George Walton was commissioned by Allen himself. After he died, two copies of his book were bound in his skin, one given to his doctor, the other to a man he tried to rob, who Allen respected for his bravery. 

And because this is where this sort of thing always has to go: No Nazis claimed to bind books in human skin, and nobody from the concentration camps claimed this was a practice. Lampshades are another story...

In fact, it'd seem that, other than binding books in human skin, the people who engaged in this practice were fairly normal.

Yes, that's a big "other than," but the important bit to get across here is that these folks were not total weirdos you'd identify immediately as such. They weren't murderers, they weren't evil dictators. They were...fairly average. 

The best I can do for you is to say that the motives for binding books in human skin were as odd and varied as the books themselves.

The Realest

I guess this is the time to tell you that books bound in human skin don’t look like the Necronomicon from Evil Dead 2. By looking at them, you’d never be able to tell the difference between a book bound in cow, pig, goat, horse, or your BFF.

Up until fairly recently, most human skin books were identified through a combination of claims and provenance, or through a process of follicle pattern recognition, which turned out to be total bullshit.

Lots of the books that were suspected as being bound in human skin have epigraphs or book plates in them, sometimes notes tucked into the pages, that make the claim:

Hic liber femineo corio convestitus est ("This book has been bound with the skin of a woman").

Apparently the front matter in books used to be a lot more exciting. Fuck, “any resemblance to real people…” It’s more like, “If this book’s cover looks like your Aunt Fran, it could be!”

Provenance is basically the ownership record, the history of the book that might be traced back to confirm it’s bound in human skin. "My grandfather got this book from my great-grandfather, who claimed this was bound in human skin, and based on where he was and the time he was there, it's entirely possible..."

The big problem with these two techniques is that they’re based entirely in either oral or written history, a game of telephone that’s been ongoing for hundreds of years. It’s really easy for this to get fucked up accidentally or for someone to fake it on purpose.

Now, however, we’ve got a much better technique: Peptide Mass Fingerprinting. This is the gold standard for identifying a book’s cover as being human flesh or that of a more, uh, traditional leather.

By The Numbers

Libraries get stuck with stuff all the time. Sometimes it's VHS tapes of old episodes of Major Dad that've been sitting in someone's garage for 30 years. And sometimes it's a book bound in human skin.

The Anthropodermic Book Project has identified 50 books that may be bound in human skin. 

Of those, they’ve tested 31.

Of those tested, 18 were real, 13 were fakes.

Which puts us at about 60/40, real/fake.

Why Libraries Have Them

Let’s get to the library part.

A lot of libraries, fancy schmancy libraries at universities and attached to museums and so on, ended up with these human skin books because most of these books were owned by fancy schmancy people who donated their (at the time, very valuable) personal libraries to universities and other cultural institutions.

If you’re a community college who wants to one-up Harvard, you could do worse than pointing out that your library doesn’t have human skin books because the sorts of people who go to your school don’t do that shit.

Libraries get stuck with stuff all the time. Sometimes it's VHS tapes of old episodes of Major Dad that've been sitting in someone's garage for 30 years. And sometimes it's a book bound in human skin.

Again, I want to remind everyone that a book bound in human skin could've easily been donated to the library as part of a large collection, and said book would appear exactly like a book bound in cow's leather. The libraries may have had no idea, and/or, at the time the book was donated, would have felt that preserving the item was the best practice, even if it wasn't something the librarians personally loved doing.

And, no, there’s no chance you’re going to check out something from your local public library bound in human skin. Unless you go to some kind of interdimensional horror library that’s only open at night and all the books you check out are in Latin. In which case I can only assume human skin books are no big deal for you.

The Big Arguments for Keeping These Items

What I'm presenting from here forward is some discussion about reasons we might preserve these books rather than burning or burying them.

These are the two sides of this debate, boiled down:

Preserve them, because we're libraries, that's what we do.

Lay them to rest, because, as librarian Paul Needham put it:

There are times when the “good” of preservation must be weighed against other compelling responsibilities.

I just want to be clear: I think the case for laying them to rest is pretty simple and easy, and I don’t necessarily think it’s wrong. Paul Needham's letter did a great job outlining it.

That said, these things exist, and I think it's worth considering whether "laying them to rest" may not be the right thing to do.

It's an uncomfortable conversation, and I'll admit, taking the "let's not bury these things" side of the debate feels icky. 

But neglecting to fully talk something out because it's uncomfortable is a terrible idea. It's kind of what got us here in the first place.

It's worth asking whether these books, the remains of these people, could serve a greater good by remaining aboveground and intact.

"Greater" is the key word. It'd be a plus/minus situation, not without moral issue. 

The minuses are obvious. Let's talk pluses.

Disclaimer: I will refer to the items using "it" pronouns because my personal beliefs are that patches of human skin are not people. I mean no disrespect.

Evolving Tech

New scientific and technological processes might help us confirm things about these books, and it might be worth waiting to see whether these technologies are developed. 

For example, it’s possible that new scientific methods combined with better genealogical technologies might make it possible to figure out who, exactly, the skin belonged to. Which would, in turn, vastly increase our ability to do what we can to make things right.

Another way of looking at this, if all institutions had laid their anthropodermic books to rest 30 years ago, we wouldn’t know that about half of alleged human skin books are fakes because Peptide Mass Fingerprinting wasn't developed until the early 90s. We wouldn't know that humanity only sucked about 60% as hard as we thought.

Belief that there's nothing further, nothing important, to learn from these books and the people they're wrapped in, requires believing that we have reached the pinnacle of scientific, technologic, and genealogic practices. I don't hold that belief.

Discomfort

Less than half of people are organ donors, WAY less than half have planned for their deaths, and the funeral industry has made dying a larger out-of-pocket expense than being born.

Did you know that human corpses pose no threat to living people?

Did you know that it's a common practice in embalming to place spiked caps under your eyelids to hold your eyes shut? Because that looks "natural"?

We are so opposed to talking about and dealing with death that we think mimicking life in a corpse is "natural." When we go to a funeral and the corpse looks asleep as opposed to dead, we say the person looks "natural." 

The message: Life is natural. Death is not. 

It’s possible that “laying these items to rest” will be seen by future generations as a form of barbaric superstition and/or moral imperialism based on our current ideas about death, which are informed by fear and discomfort.

This is us applying our current morality and concepts of human dignity to these people and their bodies in a way that isn’t respectful of their wishes (which we wouldn’t know in most cases), but instead grafts our wishes onto them.

Some individual deciding what was acceptable use of human remains is what got us in this situation in the first place, and I think it’d be wise to be open to the possibility that doing it again will put us in another mess.

I have to ask whether our ideas about burial and human remains are about the dignity of the dead or about the comfort of the living.

Which brings us to...

Ulterior Motives

At a school in Denver, a book allegedly bound in the skin of a Lenape man was on display in the library for several years. However, in the 70s, protests over the item resulted in a meeting between school representatives and a group of Indigenous representatives.

The result was that the skin was allegedly given to some Arapaho men, who allegedly buried it at an undisclosed location.

All this is alleged because everyone involved had to sign an NDA, so the actual fate of the skin is uncertain.

This finally came up again, almost 50 years later, because the school kept the coverless book. The school is working with Lenape representatives to repair the damage done by displaying this book in the past.

(Just as a brief aside: the skin was buried long before the PMF test was available to confirm the book's binding was human, so it will never be known for sure.)

Here’s the thing: I’m more than a little suspicious that the skin was laid to rest the way it was, with the NDA and all, not to do what's right, but to cover the entire situation up. And it worked, for 50 years or so.

The problem of the book was foisted on the library, not created by it. But the choice to display the item? That’s on the library, and burying the skin doesn’t really “solve the problem.”

I wonder if disposing of these items mostly serves to make us feel like we can dust our hands off and feel pretty good about ourselves when I’d argue that the display of human remains as artifacts might be the larger issue that those human remains themselves. Or, perhaps not larger, but the one we're most responsible for, and therefore more responsible for repairing.

I am concerned that burying or burning the skin is seen as a resolution. It’s not.

"They" Are "Us"

These books weren't made by mad scientists in underground sewer lairs. They were made by doctors, surgeons, respectable, "'"'''""'normal"''"""""" people, often working in medical facilities.

The bookbinders who bound these books were not Renfields carrying out the wishes of supernatural masters with a sickening devotion. 

The people who decided to collect these books don't have tentacles. 

The people who decided to put these books on display were librarians, museum curators. 

What these people have in common is that they were more like you and me than they were like cackling supervillains. I know you don't want to hear that. I know it's a lot easier to distance yourself from someone who did something horrific if you can see them as monstrous, inhuman, and completely backwards. But that's just not reality.

People like you and me made the decision to harvest human skin. People like you and me bound books in that skin, they collected these books, and they put them on display.

Now, people like you and me agree that the right thing to do is to lay them to rest. 

It's worth considering that the continued preservation of the macabre forces us to consider that this couldn't have happened without the participation of seemingly "normal" people. It's not just about the dictators, serial killers, and true monsters. It's about what everyone is doing, how everyone creates a situation where this is possible.

People like you and me have made the wrong decision before, and we will again. We've built a world where making the wrong decision is possible, and there's no reason to think that's over.

Empathy

I toured a concentration camp once.

I can see the debate, some people want them to go away, some people think they should remain. One pro-preservation group’s stated goal is to “preserve authenticity.”

What I felt there was different than what I would feel reading a book or watching a documentary. 

It CAN BE humanizing, but it isn’t going to just be that way on its own.

I…this is hard to admit: I have a harder time understanding how fucked-up some stuff is until I’m standing in the midst of it, and I think other people are like me in this way.

It’s worth considering that empathy, in some people, in me, is more direct and immediate when I can see the real thing. Stand before it.

And it’s worth considering that this sort of close contact with real things helps make history immediate. It makes it hard to deny. 

I do hear the argument already, that someone’s consent shouldn’t be violated further for the sake of my amusement or further education.

The continued presence of concentration camps has hurt people, no doubt. And it's helped people. 

The continued presence of books bound in human skin hurts people. And it's worth asking whether they might help people, too. 

I’d propose that for average people, seeing these books bound in human flesh can be humanizing. Humanizing for the victims, for the people who carried out such a heinous act, and for the people who visit them.

It CAN BE humanizing, but it isn’t going to just be that way on its own.

The challenge for museum curators and librarians is to create ways of honoring these materials and spreading this information that are humanizing.

I don’t know what that looks like, exactly, or whether it’s even possible.

I just propose that it’s worth considering.

What I Walk Away With

I'm just a simple man with an interest in the weird who has spent several hours on a column about books bound in human skin.

All of this has left me with an opinion. Here's what I think:

  1. The first and most important step in all of this should be confirming which books are bound in human skin and which aren't. That allows us to focus on the books that matter and the books that don't. Libraries and museums who have been displaying fakes can deal with that bad history on their own. Finding out a book is fake doesn't undo all the damage, but it's certainly relevant. 
  2. Along with this, laws should be created that makes the sale and purchase of these items to/by private individuals illegal, however individuals who currently have these items should be able to receive amnesty if they turn the items over to an appropriate institution. This might encourage more people to bring any items in private libraries to light.
  3. Efforts should be made to determine the possible identity of the skin's original owner/inhabitant. 
  4. If an owner/inhabitant can be identified, the most reasonable thing to do is to identify a relative and to discuss with them what their wishes are for the person's remains. The ownership should be given to the relative, however, the institution should offer options such as putting the item on display in a way that tells the story and is respectful in the opinion of the new owner, keeping the item archived and not on public display in order to facilitate future research, or turning the item over to the new owner, at which point they can choose what to do with it.
  5. If an owner/inhabitant cannot be identified as an individual, however can be identified as belonging to a fairly specific culture or group, a panel of people representing that group should be brought in to stand in for the relative in the above setup.
  6. If there is little to no identification possible, the item should be retained and periodically reevaluated for new types of testing and fresh attempts at identification. In these cases, the institution holding the items can make a decision about archiving or displaying in ways that attempt to humanize the victims. 

Get Dark Archives: A Librarian's Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin by Megan Rosenbloom at Bookshop or Amazon 

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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