Mon. Sep 26th, 2022
These may look like your standard leather-bound texts, but they're actually bound in human skin — a practice known as:
enlarge These may look like your standard leather-bound texts, but they’re actually bound in human skin — a practice known as “anthropodermic bibliopegy.” All five are housed in the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.

Mütter Museum/College of Physicians of Philadelphia)

There is rarely time to write about every cool science story that comes our way. So this year we have another special series of Twelve Days of Christmas posts, highlighting a science story that fell through the cracks in 2020, every day from December 25th through January 5th. Today: A Look at Medical Librarian Megan Rosenbloom’s Book, dark archivesabout volumes bound in human skin.

When you think of medical librarians and rare book specialists, chances are you picture them studying rare tomes in some dusty archives — and chances are you wouldn’t be wrong. But when Megan Rosenbloom wanted to separate fact and fiction about the existence of rare books bound in human skin, her research took her to some unusual places — like an artisan tannery in upstate New York, where the floor resembled “Mountain Dew.” with floating bits in them”, and emptying drums of tanning fluid could just release a few floating goat testicles in the mix.

The technical term is “anthropodermic bibliopegy,” and Rosenbloom first became fascinated with this macabre practice in 2008, when she was still in library school and working for a medical publishing house. While meandering through the vast collection of medical oddities at the famed Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, she came across a glass display case containing an intriguing collection of rare books unusually displayed with their covers closed. The captions told her they were strapped in human skin, along with a leather wallet.

She was shocked to learn that such tapes were typically made by doctors as luxuries in their private collections of rare books. “This was not a doctor who learned about anatomy through dissection,” Rosenbloom told Ars. “It wasn’t a copy of a rare disease used to educate people. Still, it didn’t seem like the doctors who made these books were Hannibal Lecter-type serial killers. They seemed like genuine doctors in the community. And I could ‘ I don’t understand in what context an apparently normal doctor would feel good about that.”

Thus began a long journey, culminating in the publication in October of Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Human Skin Bound Books, an engaging, thoughtful exploration of this morbid practice, treated with remarkable sensitivity. Rosenbloom is now a medical librarian in charge of the medical collections at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles, as well as a member of the Order of the Good Death and co-founder of that organization’s Death Salon, dedicated to promoting conversations and science about mortality and bereavement.

Her adventures in anthropodermic bibliopegy resulted in the creation of the Anthropodermic Book Project, a scientific collaboration that aims to build a count of all alleged books bound in human skin around the world, and test them to determine whether the tires are really of human origin. “We probably get emails once a week now from random people who think Grandpa had a book with human skin in the attic or something,” Rosenbloom said.

One of those confirmed books belongs to Harvard University’s Houghton Library: Des destinées de l’ame by Arsène Houssaye, made by one Dr. Ludovic Bouland of Strasbourg, who died in 1932. It was confirmed by Harvard chemist Daniel Kirby, who used peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF) to make the determination. The same method has been used to verify the authenticity of all five books allegedly bound in human skin in the Mütter Museum. I’ll let Rosenbloom explain how it works:

First, remove a small piece of the binding from a book with a scalpel or sharp tweezers; if the morsel is visible to the human eye, it is more than enough. The sample is digested into an enzyme called trypsin and the mixture is dropped onto a MALDI (matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization) plate. The MALDI plate is placed in a mass spectrometer, where lasers irradiate the sample to identify the peptides (the short chains of amino acids that are the building blocks of proteins) and create a peptide mass fingerprint (PMF). The “fingerprint” looks like a line graph of peaks and valleys, and each fingerprint corresponds to an entry in a library of known animal samples. Each animal family shares a strain of protein markers that act as points of reference that scientists can use to tell them apart.

A matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization (MALDI) preparation plate.
enlarge A matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization (MALDI) preparation plate.

By May 2019, the Anthropodermic Book Project had identified 50 books rumored to have links to human skin and had tested 31 of them, 13 of which were found to be fake. But 18 are really bound in human skin. They include a book housed in Surgeons’ Hall Museums in Edinburgh, Scotland, bound in the skin of a murderer named William Burke. Burke was an infamous corpse robber who, along with William Hare, killed 16 people in 1828 and sold the corpses to a Scottish anatomist named Robert Knox, who used them for dissection during his lectures.

Among the confirmed books in the Mütter Museum’s collection is one bound in the skin of a Civil War soldier. Another once belonged to a 19th-century Philadelphia physician named John Stockton Hough. In January 1869, Hough performed an autopsy on the corpse of a woman named Mary Lynch, and found tiny worms writhing in a cyst in her pectoral muscles. It was the city’s first known case of trichinosis. Perhaps that’s why Hough decided to remove a large chunk of Mary Lynch’s skin from her thighs and toss them in a chamber pot for better preservation. The salt and acid in the urine act like brine, an important first step in the tanning process.

Rosenbloom discovered that bit of wisdom during her visit to Pergamena, an artisan tannery in New York’s Hudson Valley run by Jesse Meyer—part of a long line of tanners dating back to 16th-century Germany. Rosenbloom, once the investigative scientist, wanted to know exactly how to make a bookbinding out of human skin. “A lot of crafters didn’t really write down how they did things,” she said. ‘They were just apprenticeships. They didn’t exactly keep manuals.’ The process is much the same as tanning animal hides, and Pergamena is one of the few remaining places where traditional 19th-century tanning techniques are used.

Her account of the visit to the tannery is one of the highlights of the book and gives Rosenbloom the best fodder for her wily, self-mockery. She was especially struck by the powerful scent, she struggled to find the words to describe it. “It wasn’t just a smell,” she writes in dark archives† “It felt like raw animal organs were being put in my mouth and pulled through my nose.” (The smell got through to her old Keds, and she had to dump them on the drive home.) As for the floating goat balls mentioned earlier, Meyer confirmed that this was not unusual, as the skins he uses come from animals that are slaughtered for food. And genitals usually stay with the skin.

Medical librarian Megan Rosenbloom became fascinated with books bound in human skin during a visit to the Mütter Museum in 2008
enlarge Medical librarian Megan Rosenbloom became fascinated with books bound in human skin during a visit to the Mütter Museum in 2008

Macmillan/Polly Antonia Barrowman

There were also quite a few frauds and forgeries in the books that Rosenbloom and her colleagues at the Anthropodermic Book Project tested. For example, a piece of parchment in the Huntington collection was inscribed with the claim that it was “the skin of a white man, taken by an Ingen,” which was roasted on a bed of coals, and his skin was flayed to make the parchment. . † The parchment turned out to be fake. Rosenbloom also dispels the myth that Nazi lampshades and other leather items, including books, were bound into human skin.

The contemporary analog to binding books into human skin is the emerging practice of preserving one’s tattoos after they die — the specialty of an undertaker named Kyle Edwards, who runs Save My Ink Forever. Anecdotally, at least Rosenbloom has found that people who have invested heavily in their tattoos are quite open to the prospect of their skin art being preserved after death, despite the “ick” factor. “Many of them don’t even blink,” she said. “They said, ‘Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of money on this, I’ve got this beautiful piece of art and it’s just going to rot in the ground. I would totally save that.'”

According to Rosenbloom, the results are also quite impressive. “They’re very clean and clear because they use that subcutaneous epidermis,” she said. “So even if you’re very old when you die, the tattoo ink goes all the way through the dermis. If you take the top layer off, it looks like the tattoo was actually just inked.”

Books bound in human skin also serve as a physical reminder to Rosenbloom of the extent to which many in the medical profession are trying to emotionally distance themselves from patients. “This is as far as you can get from someone’s humanity, when you cut someone open on the autopsy table and decide, ‘You know, I’m going to save this piece of skin for later,'” she said. In the medical field, residents often work round-the-clock shifts and must deal with the constant stress of life-and-death situations.

“It’s the dark secret of doctors’ working lives,” Rosenbloom says. “They go into the profession because they care about people and they want to help them, and then that empathy gets knocked out of them. If they’re not able to work under humane conditions, and if the education system doesn’t insist on it, and if you “If you prioritize those humane conditions for their medical students and doctors, you’re more likely to get people behaving in insane ways. Doctors need to be able to reconnect with their humanity to treat their patients humanely.”

A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin.

By akfire1

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