October 24, 2020

"It’s easier to believe that objects of human skin are made by monsters like Nazis and serial killers, not the well-respected doctors the likes of whom parents want their children to become someday."

Says Megan Rosenbloom, author of "DARK ARCHIVES/A Librarian’s Investigation Into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin," quoted in "Yes, Books Were Bound in Human Skin. An Intrepid Librarian Finds the Proof" by James Hamblin (NYT).
In fact, anthropodermic bibliopegy was not the practice of some singularly heinous regime.... Human skin leather looks indistinguishable from that of other mammals, and only recent developments in DNA sequencing technology have made it possible to tell a skin-bound book from a forgery. The making and selling of such books was pursued at many times and in many places, including late-19th-century America. John Stockton Hough, a Philadelphia physician, is known to have bound three textbooks about reproduction in the skin of Mary Lynch, a local woman who died at 28 in 1869 of tuberculosis and a parasitic infection. During an autopsy, Hough removed and preserved skin from her thighs, and then bound his books with it — presumably as a form of homage....

Rosenbloom [details]... the techniques of tanning, soaking and scraping the “hides” to preserve them. At times her descriptions seem gratuitously to indulge the same morbid fascination that has long drawn people to these objects....

Cremated remains are manufactured into all sorts of keepsakes: paperweights, gazing balls, blown-glass "art," jewelry. Is that more acceptable because it's processed into glass and retains none of the feeling of a human body?

What if a dying person wanted her skin used to make a keepsake book? My hypothetical requires the future dead body to want to be used to make a book — what book would you want to be if you wanted to be a book? — and someone who wanted to receive such a book. Presumably, the cost would be high, so deduct that from your inheritance before you say, sure, I'd love a copy of "12 Rules for Life/An Antidote to Chaos" bound in the skin of my late father. 

There's a Wikipedia article "Anthropodermic bibliopegy." Excerpt:
Three books in the libraries of Harvard University have been reputed to be bound in human skin, but peptide mass fingerprinting has confirmed only one, Des destinées de l'ame by Arsène Houssaye, held in the Houghton Library. (The other two books at Harvard were determined to be bound in sheepskin, the first being Ovid's Metamorphoses held in the Countway Library, the second being a treatise on Spanish law, Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias Hispaniae, held in the library of Harvard Law School.) 
The Harvard skin book belonged to Dr Ludovic Bouland of Strasbourg (died 1932), who rebound a second, De integritatis & corruptionis virginum notis, now in the Wellcome Library in London. The Wellcome also owns a notebook labelled as bound in the skin of 'the Negro whose Execution caused the War of Independence', presumably Crispus Attucks, but the library doubts that it is actually human skin.

Here's an article from 2014, "Harvard scientists confirm Arsène Houssaye book is bound in human skin/Arsène Houssaye’s 'Des destinées de l’ame' is believed to have been bound in the skin of a female mental patient who died of a stroke" (Independent):

According to Heather Cole, Assistant Curator of Modern Books & Manuscripts a note detailing its origin inserted inside the book revealed the human skin used to bind the book was taken from the back of a female mental patient who had died of a stroke. 
The note, from Dr. Ludovic Bouland, states: “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."

"Des destinées de l'ame" = Destinies of the soul.

If preserving human skin seems way out of line to you, consider all the people these days with elaborate, expensive, and even seriously artistic tattoos. Here's a BBC article from last year noting that there's an increasing number of requests to save the tattoos from a dead body:

"People put urns on their mantle and to me, my tattoos are more meaningful than an urn on the mantle," says [Kyle Sherwood of Save My Ink Forever]. "It's an actual piece of a person that symbolises something." 
"When my husband passed away, half of me passed away with him," [said the widow of a man named Chris Wenzel]. "I didn't know what to do. I just knew he wanted this preservation done. I had to set aside my own emotion to get this part done.".. Ms Wenzel chose the pieces to be preserved - two full sleeve tattoos including the top of Chris' hands, his throat and chest piece, his full back piece, two thigh pieces and calf piece.

Please let it be known that I selected this topic for blogging because I needed an escape from the grisly topic of the 2020 election. 

55 comments:

Lurker21 said...


Damn Nazis! Always ruining things for everybody else!

Joe Smith said...

If this became a common practice, people (while alive) could get interesting tattoos in just the right dimensions in anticipation of being used as cover art, book title included : )

tim in vermont said...

No reference to Fred and Clyde?

Danno said...

The thought of repurposing or using human skin must be a Wisconsin thing. Ed Gein just happened to lead the trend.

The Godfather said...

Eww, gross! And I also detest tattoos.

Bob Boyd said...

Anthropodermic Bibliopegy For Dummies

traditionalguy said...

Are Trophies for serial killers next. Will. we find the wealthy ones mounting heads of their prey on their trophy room wall. No wonder Trump gets our vote just for being a real Christian among barbarians.

William said...

I like the concept of Ovid's Metamorphoses being bound in human skin. It enhances the contents of the book. The medium is the message.....To properly preserve a tattoo you need full on taxidermy. I don't recommend stuffing the entire corpse. That would be in bad taste, but you should stuff the arm in order to get the full effect of a collectible sleeve tattoo.

wild chicken said...

Ugh. Doctors are spergy.

walter said...

Uighur lampshades...

tim maguire said...

It sounds appalling, but nobody blinks at jewelry made from a person’s ashes.

madAsHell said...

The punch line was......

When you rub it, the wallet turns into a brief case.

Rick.T. said...

tim in vermont said...
No reference to Fred and Clyde?
————————-
I see what you did there. All together now....

Lurker21 said...


I never got the whole tattooing thing either. My first thought was always "Nazis." My second was about my uncle in the Navy. Tattooing wasn't something that seemed hip or cool in the old days.

bagoh20 said...

I'd like to have a book left behind wrapped in my skin after I'm done with it, of course. That would be a great way to live on in the lives pf people after I'm gone. I wish I had a book in father's or grandfather's skin to cherish and pass on. It's much better than an urn full of ashes.

Fernandinande said...

Americans were funkier back when most of them lived on farms, and were familiar with blood and guts and death.

Bob Boyd said...

Just get a case for your kindle made of human skin.

Lucien said...

This topic needs to be handled with kid gloves.

Bob said...

The Godfather said, "Eww, gross! And I also detest tattoos. "

I consider tatoos (and piercings) to be self-mutilation as a fashion statement.

Bob said...

"Please let it be known that I selected this topic for blogging because I needed an escape from the grisly topic of the 2020 election."

Indelicacy as an antidote for indelicacy. Can we expect a post about Freddie Krueger next?

John Holland said...

Peter Greenaway directed a film on this theme, The Pillow Book. A man's tattooed skin is used to bind a book after his suicide. Being a Greenaway movie, the plot and themes are far more convoluted than can be summarized in a sentence. But it focuses on the sensuality of painting words on your lover's naked skin, and your lover reciprocating. Lots of Japanese calligraphy.

Wince said...

I want a "skin magazine" with pimples and hair on the palms.

walter said...

Joe Smith,
Like those diagrams that indicate where the cuts of beef are in the animal.

Narr said...

How about that. My professional career (SAIW) included curation of one supposed skin-bound book that was determined by the latest (2014-15) technology to be a ringer.

Louis Richeome's L'Idiliotrie Huguenotie to be precise; the provenance info and expert (for 1980's science) medical opinion that it was human were plausible enough for many decades, and I was glad to help resolve the thing before I retired.

Given Richeome's role as a major Catholic apologist and ideologist, there were two theories of the skin's original owner: either a pious Catholic or a pious but luckless Huguenot.

Narr
They do have some real incunabula, though

loudogblog said...

In the Evil dead series, the Necronomicon that Ash Williams has is bound in human flesh. (It's also sentient.)

Bob Boyd said...

Tan me hide when I'm dead, Fred
Tan me hide when I'm dead
So we tanned his hide when he died, Clyde
And that's it hangin' on the shed!
Altogether now!

Tie me kangaroo down, sport
Tie me kangaroo down
Tie me kangaroo down, sport
Tie me kangaroo down

John henry said...

I would like to be a compilation of Dortmunder books.

Or maybe Elmore Leonard

John Henry

Kate said...

I have a baggie in my china closet with part of my MiL's ashes in it. Her children each took a section (piece? cup?) of her to distribute as they will. It's horrible to me. She belongs in one place, whole, where she can be remembered. We don't know what to do with her.

So, that's a no from me on skin tchotchkes.

Achilles said...

Our ancestors have all done vicious debased things.

Every one alive today is here because their ancestors killed an enemy before that enemy killed them.

We are here because our ancestors were the victors.

That makes us responsible for how we act going forward and the world we leave behind.

That means fighting evil and leaving a better country and world for our children.

John henry said...

William said

"The medium is the message"

Why doe everyone misspell that? Mccluhan said "The medium is the massage"

Book available via the portal.

John Henry

GatorNavy said...

Let’s look at the Catholic Church for the start of this reuse of corpse parts. The bones of saints for example.

J Melcher said...

I am reminded of the first season of the Canadian TV SitCom "Slings and Arrows" where the dead (ghostly) theater producer demands his successor have his skull salvaged from his otherwise cremated corpse, and used as the skull prop, as Yorick, in all future productions of _Hamlet_.

The funeral directors recommend a good taxidermist ...

YoungHegelian said...

Next time somebody says to me "Hey, Bro! Gimme some skin!", I'm a-running away as fast as my feets can carry me!

Big Mike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Big Mike said...

what book would you want to be if you wanted to be a book?

Anything by Sarah Hoyt.

Joe Smith said...

@madAsHell

An oldie but a goodie...

daskol said...

Of all the book bindings described in lavish detail by the decadent aesthete narrator of JK Huysmans disturbingly beautiful novel A Rebours (translates as Against the Grain or Against Nature), I don’t recall a book bound in human skin. An oversight, I think.

n.n said...

The object of human cells are made by monsters like clinical cannibals: reduce, reuse, recycle. That said, carbon sequestration in books. Brilliant.

William said...

While it's true that McLuhan said that "The medium is the massage", it was Jeffrey Toobin who popularized the concept and brought it to widespread attention.

Big Mike said...

@Kate (11:02), you can get a small cloisonné “keepsake” cremation urn. The urn opens from the bottom and is closed tightly with screws. If you’re sentimental, like me, you will put it somewhere will you can see it often and remember the person that was. As long as someone remembers her, she is not truly gone.

Tyrone Slothrop said...

When I get my fat reduction surgery there is sure to be some leftover epidermis which I will use to bind my Dungeons and Dragons manual. Then I will have some skin in the game.

Narr said...

TS@126pm--

A friend sold his original (I mean firsty-first edition original) D&D manual for 12 large.

There's a market for everything!

Narr
Yay market capitalism!

Marc said...

Now that I know that people are wearing so-called jewelry made out of other human beings' ashes, I will most definitely blink when such nonsense is called to my attention. Am sure that we will be told that it isn't right to use the law to forbid such commercial use of the human body and its parts.

n.n said...

Next time somebody says to me "Hey, Bro! Gimme some skin!", I'm a-running away as fast as my feets can carry me!

Skin and Profitable Parts. Communists had one-child. Progressives have selective-child. Both are clinical cannibals.

Joe Smith said...

@Tyrone

Winner...

Ingachuck'stoothlessARM said...

well, you could make red shoes out of it.

Hey-- what ever happened to Heather O'rourke?

n.n said...

It's easier to believe that [unique] objects of human cells ("human life") are sacrificed by monsters like Aztecs, Progressives, Nazis, Communists, not the respected social, business, community, and human rights leaders of first-world, civilized nations.

Maillard Reactionary said...

I saw a "carbon print" once by a young lady, a portrait of her late father. (A "carbon print" is an old-fashioned process--a form of the gum-bichromate technique--for making photographic prints. The pigment was originally carbon black, hence the name.) You can use anything as a pigment in a carbon print. She used some of her father's ashes.

I found it touching, in a strange way, a picture of the man rendered visible by his ashes, made by his daughter. There's a metaphor in there struggling to get out, I suspect.

The notion of recycling human skin is a bit much for me, though.

Paco Wové said...

"Ms Wenzel chose the pieces to be preserved - two full sleeve tattoos including the top of Chris' hands, his throat and chest piece, his full back piece, two thigh pieces and calf piece."

Obligatory Futurama reference.

Narr said...

Both of my late brothers (the older one, and one of two younger) were cremated. I have no idea what the former's widow intends to do with his, and for that matter my remaining brother has the latter's and we have no clear idea what to do with them, either . . .

Narr
I'm leaving my body to ignorance

Rabel said...

Meade, what with the human taxidermy post the other day, her well-noted interest in the phallus, and now this, I'm just telling you straight up - she's planning on having your penis stuffed and mounted if she outlives you.

Most likely a tasteful desk-set and not something ostentatious up on the wall with a plaque.

But, I'm not judging.

mikee said...

If you need a topic to distract you from the grisly 2020 election campaign, may I suggest the use of toupees, hair plugs or comb overs to hide baldness in males? Because that is about as far from the present campaign as one could go, while staying right in the thick of it.

I, for one, would love it if The Donald appeared the day after winning re-election (8:00am Nov 04) shorn of his famous combover/toupee/wild-animal-living-on-his-head. That would be an alpha male power move of such media-shattering proportions, why, "plugs" Biden would probably never be seen in public again. And his Cheney-esque new look would allow him to start his 2nd term as, essentially, a completely different personality.

mikee said...

And he could answer all questions about the change of hair with, "No, it has always been like this."

Bill said...

My 93 year old mother told me a decade ago that when my dad or her died they were to be cremated. When the other passed and was cremated there ashes were to be spread out to sea, my father having been a Navy veteran. Being a Marine veteran I told my mom, that sounds kind of expensive. Mom tells, that’s what we want, so I says, flush twice, it’s a long way to the ocean. Even she had to laugh along with me...

Joe Smith said...

@Rabel

"...she's planning on having your penis stuffed and mounted..."

Penis stuffed and mounted?

Penis.

Stuffed.

Mounted.

There's a joke here somewhere...I wonder what it could be?