When I was a child I had a hamster named Pepper, who lived for about three years I recall. When he died, I don’t remember crying. Pepper sat curled in the corner of his glass domain, his shut eye a soothing crescent, looking as if he simply fell into sleep. I asked my father if I could touch him, and my father said I could; so I reached in, and gave him one last pet. Rigor mortis had set in, and as I petted Pepper’s back I could feel his spine, stiff and knobbed although his fur coat still had shine, and curled tightly as he was he reminded me of a seashell, a conch or ponderous ark set on the shore or ocean bed. Pepper was buried in the backyard by the garage. I didn’t feel too bad—I had the distinct feeling he had just up and left somewhere.
This is my earliest memory of death. I probably had encountered it before this moment, but time loosens the bows. My hamster’s quiet, peaceful sleep, endless and never waking, is clearest when I hold shells, running my fingers over their bumps and edges. And not just seashells, but pasta shells and candy shells and gastropod shells and those little coat buttons shaped like clams… My little girl’s assumption that Pepper’s skeleton bore some connection to our underwater kin was surprisingly insightful. I think of it often, veering my brain into the wonder of whether symbolism is innate inside us. Very early in my life I linked death with the sea, and also with the stillness of sleep. Countless have drawn these parallels before me: Thanatos and his brother Hypnos in the ancient Greek; in Tom Stoppard’s Hamlet spinoff play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Rosencrantz asks Guildenstern, “Do you think Death could possibly be a boat?”
The question is refuted, but it stands. Humans oft associate death with the sea, and death with his ‘brother’ sleep. But death with books? Mm, perhaps with the binding, some poor PETA faithful mourning the loss of a beloved cow. More often then not though, we seem to associate books with immortality, the preserved written word transcending our mortal selves into the halls of meaningful permanence.
Immortality is so far from death it could be considered its antithesis. Life everlasting—what’s dead about that? When we link death and books it feels more circumvential. One must maneuver around the obvious lifeblood to find the ghost.
In the state of Pennsylvania, in the city of Philadelphia, on South 22nd Street, there is an austere building, with an iron wrought gate flanked by two imposing lampposts. It is bulky, wide and congressional looking, and inside its walls is a macabre collection of medical oddities. It is the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and here rests perhaps the largest collection of anthropodermic books, or for the layman, books bound in human skin. Upon this a link between books and death slips not through our fingers, but rather assaults as one strolls through the Mütter’s aisles of wet specimens, medical models, instruments, and osteological wonders, including a corset skeleton with the alluding title “The Price of Beauty” and a vast collection of human skulls.
These books are dead. Yet, somehow, also living. A creeping ambivalence overtakes; the books are rather plain looking, so it is both surprising and skepticalizing, but then an actualization hits. Who are these people?, one finds themselves asking. It’s a question asked throughout the entirety of the Mütter Museum but it feels more acute here. After all, a skeleton is by natural law something that is discovered, not created—but a book? Bound in human skin? It pries forth a very specific fascination. If you are a human who feels its tickle there is a knowing it possesses an intangible pull. One is propelled forward and toward these strange covers as though on a sleigh. Librarian Megan Rosenbloom felt that pull, as her grey-blue eyes swept over the volumes. She wanted to know, Who are these people?, or, more accurately, who were they? What would they have to say about the fate and display of their derma? Would they object? Did they object? Were they pleased about their immortality? What were their names?
Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into The Science and History of Books Bound In Human Skin is that exploration, and so much more, as Megan Rosenbloom sets herself on a course to test, catalog, and build provenance for any and all anthropodermic books scattered and hidden about the globe. Like its subject matter, it is an oddity, and a gem of a read.
“Anthropodermic bibliopegy has been a specter on the shelves of libraries, museums, and private collections for over a century. Human skin books—mostly made by nineteenth-century doctor bibliophiles—are the only books that are controversial not for the ideas they contain but for the physical makeup of the object itself. They repel and fascinate, and their very ordinary appearances mask the horror inherent in their creation. Anthropodermic books tell a complicated and uncomfortable tale about the development of clinical medicine and the doctoring class, and the worst of what can come from the collision of acquisitiveness and a distanced clinical gaze. The weight of these objects’ fraught legacy transfers to the institutions where they are housed, and the library and museum professionals who are responsible for them. Each owner handles this responsibility differently.’
“[…] the conservationists at Harvard Library had discovered that a simple scientific test could be employed to confirm definitively whether an alleged human skin book was genuine. Shortly thereafter, I joined forces with the chemist who carried out the Harvard test, another chemist, and the curator of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia to create the Anthropodermic Book Project. Our aim is to identify and test as many alleged anthropodermic books as possible and dispel long-held myths about the most macabre books in history. Sometimes the most unlikely candidates turn out to be real human skin, and some books with plausible pedigrees turn out to be frauds. As of this writing, my team has identified only about fifty alleged anthropodermic books in public collections and a few more in private hands. With such a small field of study, any test result could completely reshape our understanding of the scope of this practice. We have to approach every item objectively and let science out the truth.”Megan Rosenbloom, from Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into The Science And History Of Books Bound In Human Skin
In the mid to late-2000s a chemist named Daniel Kirby started utilizing proteomics to help museums better restore and protect their artifacts and artworks. With modern technology Kirby realized by looking at an object’s proteins he could help distinguish a painting’s egg tempera content, or the type of seal skin used in a nineteenth-century Yup’tik kayak, assisting in recreations. When Megan Rosenbloom found Daniel Kirby, the Anthropodermic Book Project was born. Taking only a sliver of the supposed skin binding (about the amount of a thin fingernail shaving) peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF) for the first time in history could prove whether an alleged human skin book was real or fraudulent. Soon, confirmed anthropodermic books started showing up all over the world, though there were still unanswered questions. For one, PMF testing cannot identify the race or cultural makeup of a person; homo sapiens “do not have enough genetic variability among its populations to justify either the identification of geographically based races or of evolutionarily distinct lineages.” For another, PMF testing cannot even really distinguish between homo sapiens and other members of the Homininae subfamily (i.e. chimps, bonobos, and gorillas); however, no book has ever (to modern knowledge) been bound (or allegedly bound) in gorilla skin. That said, Megan Rosenbloom wants you to know that if you do know of a book allegedly bound in gorilla skin to contact her immediately.
The ghostliness of these books makes them uniquely opaque, despite their grim nudity. Stripped of their personage, decontextualized, their true pasts can only be cobbled together through dedicated detective work, old paper trails and the sort. Some anthropodermic books are terrible question marks: nameless, with limited provenance and nothing substantial to grab hold to. But others are blatant in their confessions.
Patterns began to emerge as more and more anthropodermic books were wedged into the light. The majority of acquisitioners and tanners were doctors or part of the doctoring class; when alleged human skin books were outed to be frauds, a large portion of them were centered around ploys of racism; though PMF tests cannot determine sex, many of the skins were claimed to be female, alluding to a rather sinister result of what happens when the distanced clinical gaze collides with the objectifying male one, making women and their skins victims of physicians’ psychosexual pathologies. Yet some defied expectations. One such anthropodermic book, Narrative of the Life of James Allen, Alias George Walton, Alias Jonas Peirce, Alias James H. York, Alias Burley Grove the Highwayman, was the result of a deathbed wish. The inscription “Hic liber Waltonis cute compactus est” graces the cover, on a gold-tooled black leather strip: “This book by Walton bound in [his] skin.” George Walton, lifelong criminal bibliophile turned armchair philosopher in prison, took end-of-life matters into his own hands. When he died, he requested his memoir be bound in himself; skin was taken from his back, tanned to mirror grey deerskin, and sent to bookbinder Peter Low. He now rests at the Boston Athenaeum, his words preserved in his own suede.
Though one might be inclined to believe Dark Archives is a book of grotesque goggling, it is chiefly a book of history—medical history to be precise. When we die, we inevitably leave something behind: our bodies. Much of Dark Archives circles around the dubious questions of what rights do these bodies have. Who owns them if not ourselves, ourselves which have flown away? Rosenbloom wends us through humanity’s troubling pasts of corpses and their defilements; the dead stolen from graves, criminals hacked up in front of storefront windows to the appeasement of oglers, the moral minefield of surgeons in need of practicing cadavers, the exchange of money for human flesh. In the long shadow of medical butchery, anthropodermic books are a niche, and at times almost seem quaint in the grand scheme of things. But so many factors must converge to make an anthropodermic book possible. It is this chain of compliance that is most fascinating, and it is this chain that presents the most challenging end result of why. What does an anthropodermic book represent? What does its existence mean?
I am not so squeamish about death. From the fungi growth of human composting to how bodies explode when cremated, I am rather captivated by the human corpse’s embracing of ugliness and repellency of what is considered contemporarily aesthetically good. We spend so much of our lives overly concerned with our appearances… I am strangely refreshed with the reality that at the end death throws all that hard work and devotion away. Once dead, we stiffen then fall slack, we yellow and brown and grey; insects flume within us, our internal bacteria goes bonkers and we bloat, blister, and burst; we are all—essentially—eaten, whether by fire or dirt. What’s left of us? In time not even bones. Should your derma befall the fate of an anthropodermic book, your lifeless body will be flayed, your skin pickled in acidic juices then washed and beaten and pressed. It is all an odd, ugly sort of business, a wonderfully odd ugly business. But, why shouldn’t it be? Must we be preserved youthful and plump with intrinsic beauty? Encased in resin, pumped full of formaldehyde, or launched into the vacuum of space, so as to never rot and decay. I suppose what draws me most to anthropodermic bibliopegy is despite the frequent usurping of human rights, it feels like a second life, so unlike that of our first.
These books exist, for now at least. Another ornament to be hung and considered on the tree of the Human Condition. What we can learn from them, and what we believe of their nature, is sure to vary with time.
From 1497-1543 a German artist named Hans Holbein existed. While in his impressionable twenties, he endeavored on a series of intricate woodblock paintings. These paintings were small, small enough to cup in the palm of your hand. In them, Death in the form of a skeleton performs a dance, a dance that yanks the cowl off an astonished monk, steals food from a miser, skewers an adorned knight, pulls the covers off a resting duchess, and leads a crying child away from his parents into the coming night. It is The Dance of Death, and to all peoples of every class he is an intruder, enthusiastically performing his jig. Cut by Hans Lützelburger (who died before he could see the finished product over which he labored, in a crude stroke of irony) the sensational woodblocks were later sold to creditors and compiled for publishing in Lyons in 1538. They have never been out of print, the hypnotic movements of Death’s swinging arms and empty eyes enlivening and alarming viewers for over six centuries.
And in 1816, a famous bookbinder by the name of Joseph Zaehnsdorf commissioned the skin of a woman to give what he saw as “an appropriate binding” for a copy of Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death. The quantity of the material he was given (meaning, human skin) was in his own words “scanty”, resulting in him having to split the human leather in two, creating a smooth finished cover but a lumpy binding. In the typed memorandum he signs conditionally, “Yours obediently, Zaehnsdorf”. It is macabre in its pragmatism, the capitalist system that incited and buoyed this tome’s creation.
This copy along with two other anthropodermic editions of Holbein’s Dance of Death were later displayed at an exhibition by Grolier’s Club in 1903. Supposedly, three more copies throughout the 19th century of The Dance were made, totaling the number of times Hans Holbein the Younger’s eerie woodblock series The Dance of Death being allegedly bound in human skin to six. Though perhaps the most well known anthropodermic books, Megan Rosenbloom’s Dark Archives barely covers these volumes, likely because of their notoriety. Of these six, only two have been tested, and confirmed by PMF testing; Zaehnsdorf’s 1816 binding is one of them, obedient to the end. The book now rests at Brown University, at the Jay Hay Library in Providence, Rhode Island, ‘rests’ holding more weight here than is perhaps norm.
Hans Holbein created The Dance of Death to showcase what he saw as an encouraging—and brutal—truth: Death comes for all of us, regardless of wealth, faith, condition, or class. Sometimes Death’s dance is like an assault, as to a jewel-laden emperor being denied his crown; but other times, Death is more a liberator, as to an old woman limping down a dirt road being released from her pains. Holbein also made The Dance as a sort of warning, a reminder to the most elitist classes that they will not be spared. But what Holbein’s enigmatic dancing Death misses is that though being dead will likely be the same for all of us, our dying—and the bodies we leave behind—will not become equalized the moment Death’s dance is finished. Rather, death just follows the path life has laid out. And, as all of us know, life is not egalitarian.
The skins that bind Holbein’s [Dances] of Death were surely taken without consent, and with disregard of their owners. The commissioners, the bookbinders, the sellers, they all get to have their names passed on through history. But who makes Zaehnsdorf’s 1816 Dance of Death? No name is granted. We don’t know. Without the name, what immortality is given? They are doomed to mere superficial covering, a pale smooth beautiful nothing on a paper throne. Megan Rosenbloom gives new life to these dark volumes, and asks us to think about death, and our dead, more often. Through Dark Archives she invites us with compassion into a “more empowering relationship with our mortality.”
5 out of 5 stars for Megan Rosenbloom’s Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into The Science And History Of Books Bound In Human Skin.
The featured image is of the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. It is an American museum of medical history, and “helps the public understand the mysteries and beauty of the human body and to appreciate the history of diagnosis and treatment of disease.” Photograph via muttermuseum.org – Thank you.