Brown University’s library boasts an unusual anatomy book. Tanned and polished to a smooth golden brown, its cover looks and feels no different from any other fine leather.
But here’s its secret: the book is bound in human skin.
A number of prestigious libraries — including Harvard University’s — have such books in their collections. While the idea of making leather from human skin seems bizarre and cruel today, it was not uncommon in centuries past, said Laura Hartman, a rare book cataloger at the National Library of Medicine in Maryland and author of a paper on the subject.
An article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from the late 1800s “suggests that it was common, but it also indicates it wasn’t talked about in polite society,” Hartman said.
The best libraries then belonged to private collectors. Some were doctors who had access to skin from amputated parts and patients whose bodies were not claimed. They found human leather to be relatively cheap, durable and waterproof, Hartman said.
In other cases, wealthy bibliophiles may have acquired the skin from criminals who were executed, cadavers used in medical schools and people who died in the poor house, said Sam Streit, director of Brown’s John Hay Library.
The library has three books bound in human skin — the anatomy text and two 19th century editions of “The Dance of Death,” a medieval morality tale.
While human leather may be repulsive to contemporary society, libraries can ethically have the books in their collections if they are used respectfully for academic research and not displayed as objects of curiosity, says Paul Wolpe of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.
“There is a certain distancing that history gives us from certain kinds of artifacts,” Wolpe said, noting that museums often have bones from archaeological sites. “If you had called me and said these are books from Nazi Germany, I would have a very different response.”
The Boston Athenaeum, a private library, has an 1837 copy of George Walton’s memoirs bound in his own skin. Walton was a highwayman — a robber who specialized in ambushing travelers — and he left the volume to one of his victims, John Fenno. Fenno’s daughter gave it to the library.
The Cleveland Public Library has a Quran that may have been bound in the skin of its previous owner, an Arab tribal leader. Pam Eyerdam, head of the library’s fine arts and special collections department, said he may have wanted to immortalize himself.
“People kept their family histories written in Bibles, and what is a Quran?” she said.
Many of the volumes bound in human skin are medical books.
The College of Physicians of Philadelphia has four bound by Dr. John Stockton Hough, known for diagnosing the city’s first case of trichinosis. He used that patient’s skin to bind three of the volumes.
“The hypothesis that I was suggesting is that these physicians did this to honor the people who furthered medical research,” Hartman said.
— Associated Press
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