Unlike the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis (the Book of the Dead) in The Evil Dead movies, the human skin books in author Megan Rosenbloom’s new Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin (Macmillan, $26) never summoned evil spirits in the woods that turned a cabin full of teens into flesh-eating zombies. In fact, they look like ordinary vintage books with covers made from regular old leather. But Rosenbloom has spent the last five years researching the grim details behind some of the “most macabre books in history” to find out how they came to be and where.
Rosenbloom is a collections strategies librarian at UCLA. She’s also a member of the Order of the Good Death, the “death acceptance collective” founded in 2011 by Caitlin Doughty, a mortician and fellow author who’s best known for her Ask a Mortician series on Youtube. Rosenbloom organized the order’s Death Salon events, which were informal talks meant to normalize society’s attitudes towards death and grieving. (The two will discuss Rosenbloom’s book, hosted by Skylight Books, via Crowdcast on October 29.)
In 2014, Harvard’s Houghton Library made news when the library announced that it possessed Arsene Houssaye’s Destinies of the Soul bound in human skin.The French novelist, who was grieving his wife’s death, published the book as a meditation on the soul in the 1880s, and gave a copy to his friend, Dr. Ludovic Bouland, who covered it in skin taken from a female mental patient. A note inside it reads: “A book on the human soul merits that it be given human clothing.”
Rosenbloom, who spent more than a decade as a medical librarian at USC, would regularly hear rumors and receive tips on the whereabouts of alleged human skin books. She wanted to separate fact from fiction. So the following year she began traveling to some of the most prestigious university libraries and other collections in the country, as well as France and England, to study and record the origins of the books’ authors, binders, and collectors, and how they evolved over time.
“That’s sort of the thrust of the book,” Rosenbloom says. “I’ll take you along that journey and try to figure out why they exist and what we’re supposed to do with them.”
Along with two chemists and a curator from the Mütter Museum, Rosenbloom co-founded the Anthropodermic Book Project, which analyzes samples taken from book covers using a technique called Peptide Mass Fingerprinting to determine if the skin is human or non-human. As of March, Rosenbloom’s team has confirmed that of the 50 so-called human skin books in the world tested so far, 18 are genuine.
Among them is English physician-general Thomas Gibson’s medical book, Anatomy Epitomized and Illustrated, that Rosenbloom found at our very own Huntington Library, and 16th-century Belgian anatomist Andreas Vesalius’ On the Fabric of the Human Body, the oldest book on anatomy, located at Brown University. But it gets creepier.
Joseph Leidy, a surgeon for the Union Army, used skin from a Civil War soldier to cover his own book, An Elementary Treatise on Human Anatomy, which he donated to the Mütter. He also donated to the Mütter the famous Soap Lady, whose corpse had become coated in a waxy, soap-like substance called adipocere. The medical history museum in Philadelphia is notorious for housing oddities like slides of Einstein’s brain, the conjoined livers of Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker, and thoracic tissue from Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. It’s no surprise the museum holds five confirmed human skin books, the largest number in the world. Then there’s Dr. John Stockton Hough, who bound three books on women’s health and reproduction in the skin of an Irish widow who died in Philadelphia in 1868 from tuberculosis and trichinosis. Rosenbloom found a volume at the University of Pennsylvania.
According to Rosenbloom’s book, these binders weren’t “mad scientists” but mostly well-respected physicians who wanted to enhance the value of their libraries.
“It was fashionable and commonplace for collectors to have books rebound, especially in the 19th century,” says Rosenblooom. “Back then, it was more of a personal taste kind of thing instead of a historical artifact. If I were a doctor and book collector and I had a rare, old book, and I have access to this very unusual binding material that’s an anatomical dissection, then I would use that binding to make it extra special. That was the doctor-bibliophile connection.”
And not all of Rosenbloom’s findings are medical texts. She came across a 19th-century, French BDSM allegorical poetry book, and copies of poetry books by Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American to publish a book of poetry in 1773. George Walton, a career criminal who died in a Boston prison in 1837, personally requested that his memoir be covered in his own flesh. After his death, a copy was given to his doctor and another to one of his robbing victims.
Binding books in human skin, known as anthropodermic bibliopegy, is believed to date back to the French Revolution, but the process became popular in the 19th century. In most cases, the skin was taken from unclaimed bodies, poor people or people of color. This was in an age before consent was established in medical practice. While some of the experts Rosenbloom interviewed question the ethics of publicly displaying such morbid artifacts and think that they should just be buried, Rosenbloom argues that there are some lessons to be learned from them.
“My general feeling is that we should take care of them,” says Rosenbloom. “They are evidence of a dark history of clinical medicine that most people don’t know about. They could be very instructive. Let’s keep them respectfully and add our context to them.”
Rosenbloom also contends that the curiosity some people might have about human skin books is similar to their fascination with other types of “murderabilia,” for instance, art created by serial killers in prison, as well as our obsession with horror movies and true crime podcasts.
“There’s a way of looking at things that are horrific and make you feel afraid,” says Rosenbloom. “For some folks, learning about it can diffuse the horror of it, and the fear and anxiety. That’s part of the appeal—mastering the scary concept.”
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