Librarians are an interesting breed. Introverts by nature, they devote themselves to the cataloguing and dissemination of information, traditionally in the form of print books, though in the past decades library science has given way to the more odious and much less humanistic field of information technology. (Anyone who considers a book simply a vessel for transmitting information probably has no business working in a library, but that’s an argument for another day.) Certain librarians, however – especially those who work in specialized fields or devote themselves to the study and preservation of rare or antiquated volumes – share with all true bibliophiles a tendency to fetishize books as objects. They revel in the tactile nature of books, the smell of their pages and ink, the weight of a volume in their hands. Archival librarians who work with rare or highly esoteric books espouse an almost religious reverence for their charges, treating the books under their care with the veneration and attention a parent would show for a child.
Then there are those within the rare or antiquarian library profession with even more arcane tastes and obsessions.
Megan Rosenbloom is a former medical librarian whose areas of research encompass the history of medicine and rare books. She is also fascinated with a particular sub-field of bibliographic study, one that even many die-hard book lovers and antiquarian collectors might find at best off-putting, at worst downright horrifying. As a leader of the Anthropodermic Book Project, Rosenbloom has for years been ensconced in a study of anthropodermic bibliopegy – in lay terms, the practice of binding books in human skin.
Early in Dark Archives, Rosenbloom’s 2020 book detailing her pursuit of these elusive, often apocryphal volumes, the author points out that the subject “has been a spectre 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.” The practice of fashioning a book from the skin of a deceased human being obviously involves an ethical minefield, with moral questions beginning with the matter of consent. Those 19th-century doctors who used the skins of dead patients, most of them women, to create unique tokens for their personal medical libraries were of dubious moral fibre, to say the least.
Though Rosenbloom comes across at least one person who did actively consent to having his skin repurposed as the binding for a book about his career as a brigand and a prisoner. The 19th century U.S. highwayman George Walton decreed that following his death from consumption while in prison, his life story – ponderously titled Narrative of the Life of James Allen, Alias George Walton, Alias Jonas Pierce, Alias James H. York, Alias Burley Grove the Highwayman … – be produced and bound in his own flesh. “Although he didn’t have his freedom, Walton took power over what happened to his body in death,” Rosenbloom writes, further suggesting that “he subverted a symbol of capital punishment by giving his consent to it.” One of the two volumes produced now resides in the Boston Athenæum, “one of the oldest independent libraries in the United States.”
Unlike some of the volumes Rosenbloom examines, the Walton book is a true anthropodermic work; some books purportedly bound in human skin actually turn out to be bound in sheepskin or goatskin or, in one case, rabbit skin. Rosenbloom’s group employs a scientific test, known as peptide mass fingerprinting, to determine the authenticity of human skin binding. This requires slicing off a small piece of a book, which some libraries and collectors are unwilling to allow the group to do, so the provenance of some volumes remains uncertain. However, an appendix at the back of the book lists no fewer than seventeen separate volumes confirmed as authentic human skin books currently extant in the collections of libraries or academic institutions.
And that’s to say nothing of the books that reside in the hands of private collectors. These include a Frenchman named Frédérick Coxe whose collection of occult works includes an anthropodermic edition of Poe’s Le scarabée d’or (The Gold Bug), which Rosenbloom cheekily refers to as Poe en peau. The reasons for private citizens – as opposed to libraries or other institutions of knowledge – to seek out and acquire human skin books are murky; perhaps they are viewed as memento mori or a kind of talisman or simply a macabre and unique artifact of human perversity. Certainly their rarity makes them incrementally more valuable than books bound in standard animal leather.
Rosenbloom admits that her interest in the subject began with “morbid curiosity,” but evolved over time to encompass a desire to preserve the historical record these volumes represent, including – and perhaps especially – the dark and unsettling aspects of the human psyche they attest to. Throughout her own book, Rosenbloom can be seen wrestling with the ethical questions her investigation throws up, though her librarian’s devotion to the preservation of bibliographic history eventually wins out over any qualms about the relative inhumanity involved in many of the objects’ creation and dissemination.
But she is also aware of how much can’t be known about anthropodermic books, whether regarding their origins or the motives for their production. What, for example, would have prompted the creation of two extant human skin volumes – both from 1773 – of the poems of formerly enslaved writer Phyllis Wheatley? Rosenbloom traces a history of the U.S. medical profession dehumanizing Black and racialized patients, but has to finally admit that the motives behind the Wheatley volumes can only be guessed at from a modern-day vantage.
In the end, what is most fascinating about the subject, aside from its gruesome testament to the extremes of the human condition, may be embedded precisely in those elements that must remain mysterious to us. “As we uncover the stories of the people involved in the practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy, we must remember that relying on what is available in the written record means there are some stories that will remain hidden in the dark,” Rosenbloom writes. “While sifting out the truth from the rumours and innuendo, we can’t forget that sometimes rumours are the only dissemination method available to the powerless, and innuendo is the coded speech wherein those in power can allude to the unspeakable.”