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A Brief History of Old Books Bound in Human Skin and Where One Was Found in L.A.

1:11 PM PST on November 2, 2020

[dropcap size=big]H[/dropcap]ave you ever wondered what those ancient books on a library shelf are made of? 

Chances are, they contain parchment or leather from some sort of animal put through an arduous and stench-filled tanning process. Perhaps the skin was even preserved in urine, first, which was one of the first steps in making leather. But for some 18 — confirmed by Peptide Mass Fingerprinting testing, which can detect which species a skin belongs to—books, a similar method was done to human skin taken from cadavers. 

In Megan Rosenbloom’s meticulously researched and ceaselessly fascinating Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin, the author sets out to document and test purported examples of this rare—but morbidly fascinating—practice, which is known as anthropodermic bibliopegy. 

Cover of book.

In her book, former medical librarian and current UCLA librarian and co-founder of the Death Salon—an annual event showcasing death-positive artists, storytelling, and scientific experts that is now on hiatus—Rosenbloom traces the history of these books and how they were likely manufactured. Much of her research in the book is sussing out which books are real and which are the product of myths, rumors, or legends due to fictional notes and stories that were passed down centuries along with the books themselves. 

In Los Angeles, she tested one book at Los Angeles’ own Huntington Library, which was indeed bound in human skin, and one piece of parchment. The parchment had a message claiming it was bound in the human leather from a white man, and a Native American once used it for currency. However, after tested, it was found to be made of animal skin. “It’s really hard to judge motivations if you can’t find them... but there is a trend that when someone says something about the race of the person [who the skin belongs to], then we test, and it turns out not to be human. Does it make it more believable if you’re trying to trick someone...Does the specificity make it seem more real?” Rosenbloom says about books with racially charged provenance narratives. 

Furthermore, DNA testing does not show the race of the person tested. The Huntington Library is closed due to the pandemic. Still, Rosenbloom tells L.A. Taco that she would advise curious folks looking to be spooked to refrain from actually requesting the book at the library. “People might make [these books] more worn, so there are conservation issues,” she says. 

The books themselves are invaluable for the information they provide on issues like the history of medicine and how cadavers were treated in the past. Though one might expect ghoulish or Nazi-oriented tales of how the books came to be, many of the confirmed books were bound by gentlemanly doctors who preserved skin from cadavers they had used for anatomical studies or that had once belonged to a patient.It’s wild to think from our current perspective about a situation in which a well-respected doctor would feel comfortable with that, but perhaps something that is even harder for us to think about is that there was no concept of consent,” Rosebloom says.

Part of what made the practice possible, Dark Archives notes, was the evolution of clinical medicine during the French Revolution and doctors’ elevation to a much higher social class. Many of them would become well-rounded gentlemen and pick up the hobby of book collection. “Before that, you didn’t need any science or medical knowledge to be a doctor. It was important, but it also happened to have this side effect of having this new way of looking at people. You do need a certain amount of distancing to do your job— if you were involved with each patient and their humanity, how could you do surgery on someone if you’re thinking about messing up in a very immediate, real way,” Rosenbloom notes. 

Megan Rosenbloom. Photo by Polly Antonia Photography.

Doctors developed a “clinical gaze,” where they detached themselves to deal with patients and tolerate their dissection rooms’ conditions. “There were animals running around. They didn’t have real ways to preserve anything. For you to be dissecting day in and day out, you had to have this defense mechanism,” Rosenbloom said.  

The book also goes into how more bodies were needed to train doctors as medicine became more standardized and science-based. They would surreptitiously procure these bodies by paying “resurrection men” to dig them up or even send out one of their students. They could also rely on the bodies of executed criminals. In the case of William Corder, who was executed for murder in 1828, his corpse was reportedly put on display with its skin peeled back for onlookers, and then dissected an hour later. Many of his parts were purportedly turned into murder memorabilia, with his skin becoming the book’s binding. Rosenbloom was unable to test the Corder book, but it’s an example of how differently the body was treated and tended to by society and doctors. 

Ultimately, the bodies of the poor were used to advance science that mainly benefited the rich. “It speaks to all the ways some people have power, and some are marginalized throughout the history of medicine. Just a few decades before, when people would talk about the history of medicine in the west, a lot of it was focused on the great men who did these innovations, and our body parts and diseases and stuff like that were named after these men. And now the focus is, I think more on what happened to patients and what did they experience and how does class come into play,” Rosenbloom says. She believes books can teach readers about our troubling medical past so that mistakes won’t be repeated. “At the end of my book, you see that we talk about what we can do to make sure doctors maintain this empathy in critical conditions. Physician burnout was a huge problem before the pandemic, and now it’s at a crisis point. So the institutions that employ and train doctors need to build this into people’s working hours and conditions that they’re being taken care of psychologically and physically.”

Dark Archives isn’t all skin and gloom. Rosebloom, being an affable and magnetic narrator, takes readers on a journey from libraries to museums and private collectors—for whom skin bound books are scarce and valuable—to a contemporary, small tannery where she wades through pools of animal goop. “These books serve as vessels for really big conversations worth having. I researched very extensively,” she says. “But the audience for the book is not an academic audience. I’m in there, so you have a guide through this weird world...There are horrible things that happen, but there’s also the thrill of the hunt, and silly things that happen, and the joke is always on me.”

“...Death positivity is also about it being okay to be interested in things that are gross and unsettling and unusual things about dead bodies. Don’t shame people’s curiosity in wanting to know things.”

At the end of Dark Archives, Rosenbloom explains her philosophy about death positivity and her desire to donate her body to a medical school. She writes, “...I was already spending my life educating medical students; it seemed fitting that I’d make use of my death in the same way.” She advises readers to plan their death ahead, as the arrangements make it easier for those around you. “It is such a kind thing to do. It’s really meaningful, important, and helpful to the people you leave behind. Death positivity is also about it being okay to be interested in things that are gross and unsettling and unusual things about dead bodies. Don’t shame people’s curiosity in wanting to know things,” Rosenbloom says. 

This is especially true now, during a pandemic when people have death on their minds more than ever, and the possibility of having to decide whether or not you want to go on a ventilator isn’t some bizarre, paranoid thought anymore. We asked Rosenbloom whether these old medical practices could be tied into how people were being treated now, during the pandemic: 

“Clearly, we do not all have access to the same kind of care. The idea that it would be even remotely acceptable for people who get free government healthcare to not try to extend that to everyone during a pandemic and actually try to roll back benefits that people have is totally absurd. Are we really still there?”

Dark Archives deftly ties the macabre together with the educational and amusing and is the perfect post-Halloween read for a curious Angeleno. 

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