Every Halloween we hear about these books in spooky stories and films.
Books bound in the most macabre materials; created by mad scientists and witches.
They’re called Anthropodermic Books.
Books bound in human skin.
What you might not realize is that these books actually exist. In Dark Archives: A Librarian’s investigations into the science and history of books bound in human skin, Megan Rosenbloom covers her journey into researching and finding anthropodermic books tucked away in the archives and private collections across the world. In her work, she teamed up with scientists to develop a system of testing materials to see if the allegations about some of these books were true. Because “unlike the Necronomicon or the spellbook in Disney’s 1993 film Hocus Pocus, real human skin books do not usually immediately announce themselves with a ghoulish appearance…Even if you were holding one right now, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell”.
So if these books are so inconspicuous, how do we know they exist outside of scary stories and films? Honestly, the answer to that is through word of mouth and rumors. In most cases of anthropodermic books, rumors have followed the items from collection to collection and some of them have handwritten notes on their cover pages or on pieces of paper tucked into them. Such a rare, macabre, and unnerving binding material is known to increase the monetary value of a book; so in many cases, booksellers and collectors make sure to mention the possibility of human skin binding.
Until recently, proving this was much more difficult. Previously the only way to ‘confirm’ what type of material a book was bound in is to either tear a piece off of it (partially destroying it) in order to see how the material tears, or to closely examine the pore patterns in the leather and make an estimate on what type of skin was used. This is a very difficult strategy since the skins are tanned before being used to bind the books. It also requires a previous encounter with tanned human skin to know what you’re looking at, which is very difficult considering how rare anthropodermic books really are.
Rosenbloom teamed up with a chemist and a preservationist from Harvard Library, and a curator from the Mütter Museum to develop the Anthropodermic Book Project, in order to test rumored anthropodermic books in order to know for sure if the rumors are true. In 2013 “conservationists at Harvard Library discovered that a simple test could be employed to confirm definitively whether an alleged human skin book was genuine”(Rosenbloom, 2020, p.13). Their test, peptide mass fingerprinting, still involves a small sample of the material but it’s much smaller than any other form that earlier testing previously needed.
With the work of The Anthropodermic Book Project, as of March 2020, there are now eighteen scientifically confirmed anthropodermic books in the private and public archives collections in the western/European world. This count is updated periodically on the Anthropodermic Book Project’s blog! At this point in time the Mütter Museum, part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, hosts the largest collection of confirmed books bound in human skin. The Mütter Museum is closely followed by Brown University’s Special Collections and Archives, The John Hay Library.
In her book, Megan Rosenbloom discusses her own journey as a member of this project and does her best to share the information about the people and their own journeys before their bodies were used to becoming bookbinding. As you may imagine, there are ongoing discussions about the ethics of showcasing books bound in human skin and how to respect the person whose skin was used when acting as a steward to a collection those books are a part of. Most notably the discussion of consent is a central issue. There is little to no way of knowing if these people agreed to have their skin used to bind a book. Rosenbloom has this open discourse in her book and does her best to share as much information about each of the books she comes across in the production of her research on them.
Rosenbloom dedicated the pages of her book to rehumanizing the people whose skin would eventually bind a book. This information includes: firstly, if the book is actually anthropodermic, who’s skin is on the book, who commissioned it, what binder agreed to use human skin, and how many collectors passed these books down from collection to collection, keeping the rumor alive. You can read more on these books, the people who became them, and the history of the practices of binding books in human skin in Rosenbloom’s book Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigations into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin.
Megan Rosenbloom. Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigations into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin.(New York: Farrer, Straus, and Giroux, 2020).