Books Bound in Human Flesh Offer a Unique Glimpse Into History

Several of the most famous libraries in the United States, including libraries at Harvard and Brown University have books in their collection with unique covers, tanned and polished to golden brown. The covers may look like fine leather, but they are made from human skin.

The practice of binding books in human skin wasn’t uncommon centuries ago, although it was rarely discussed in the polite society. At the time, there were few public libraries, and large accumulations of books belonged to private collectors.

Some were physicians, who had regular access to human skin from amputated limbs and patients whose families never showed up to collect their bodies. In some cases, wealthy book collectors even acquired human skin from medical school cadavers, poor people who died without money for burial, or skin from executed criminals.

Nowadays, libraries keep flesh-bound volumes in their rare book collections and do not allow them to circulate, although scholars can examine them in the library. Many of the volumes are medical books. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia has several books by Dr. John Stockton Hough, who diagnosed Philadelphia’s first case of trichinosis.

To bind three of his books, he used the skin of that first trichinosis patient. “The hypothesis that I was suggesting is that these physicians did this to honor the people who furthered medical research,” says Laura Hartman, a rare-book cataloger at the National Library of Medicine in Maryland and author of a paper on the subject.

The Cleveland Public Library has a Quran that may have been bound in the skin of an Arab tribal leader who happened to be the book’s previous owner. The Boston Athenaeum, a private library, has an 1837 copy of George Walton’s memoirs bound in his own skin.

Walton was a notorious highwayman, and he left the volume to one of his victims. In most cases, universities and other libraries acquired the skin-bound books mostly as donations.

Brown’s John Hay Library contains three books bound in human skin, including two 19th-century editions of The Dance of Death, a medieval morality tale. One copy was rebound in 1893 by Joseph Zaehnsdorf, a skilled bookbinder in London, who reported to his client that he did not have access to enough skin, so he had to split the piece he had.

The front cover was bound with the outer layer of skin and has a slightly bumpy texture, like soft sandpaper. The spine and back cover, made from the inner layer, are soft and supple, like suede.

Sam Streti, director of the John Hay Library, says that just like many other skin-bound volumes, “there was some tie-in with the content of the book.” The Dance of Death is about how death prevails over everyone, rich or poor.

In most cases, the skin used to bind books came from people who had no one to claim their remains. Although the use of human leather may be repulsive in today’s society, libraries can have such books in their collections as long as they are used for academic research and not displayed as objects of curiosity.

Paul Wolpe of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania notes that museums often have bones from archaeological sites and these books should be treated with the same respect.

“There is a certain distancing that history gives us from certain kinds of artifacts,” Wolpe said. “If you had called me and said these books are from Nazi Germany, I would have a very different response.”

The Harvard Law School Library contains a leather-bound book that was bought from an antiquarian books dealer in New Orleans years ago for $42.50. The book, a 1605 manual for Spanish lawyers, sat on a shelf in the library for decades, unnoticed.

In the early 1990s, when curator David Ferris was going through the library catalog, he found a note saying that the book had been bound in a man’s skin. DNA tests were performed on the book to see whether or not the binding was indeed human skin, but the tests were inconclusive because the genetic material was destroyed by the tanning process.

Nonetheless, the library had a special box built to store the book, and now it sits on a special shelf. “We felt we couldn’t set it just next to someone else’s law books,” Ferris said.

By Linda Orlando

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