MARCH 30, 2021
WHEN I FIRST held a book bound in human skin, the little hairs on my neck did not stand up, and chills did not run down my spine. The book looked unremarkable; its pale-yellow binding blended in with its antiquarian neighbors on the shelf. I was holding Des Destinées de l’âme (Destiny of the Soul) by philosopher Arsène Houssaye and standing in the bowels of Houghton Library, Harvard’s rare book and manuscript repository. As a graduate student, I had been hired to truck material between the underground stacks and the reading room, where researchers came from all over the world to pore over the library’s collections. Not long after I arrived, Harvard announced that the 19th-century philosophical treatise I held in my hands was the first proven example using peptide mass fingerprinting of anthropodermic bibliopegy, the practice of binding books in human skin. (Human: anthropos; skin: derma; book: biblion; fasten: pegia.) At my first opportunity, I stole away on a break to get a look at the volume. Holding the book didn’t give me goosebumps, but it did raise many questions. Whose skin was this? What kind of person would bind a book in human skin? And why?
Megan Rosenbloom has spent the last six years pursuing answers to those questions. The results of her efforts are compiled in Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin. Readers who relish the “dark academia” vibes of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History or the historical medical accuracy of The Knick will love spending time in Rosenbloom’s company, though the book holds broader appeal as well. Rosenbloom, who has a background in journalism, effortlessly combines perspectives from history, science, and the rare book world to tell her story. That story is not for the weak-stomached, but Rosenbloom tackles it with curiosity and empathy in a series of essays that take readers behind the scenes of the oldest museums and libraries in the world. Each chapter uncovers something new about the origins of skin bindings; as a result, Dark Archives shifts the reader’s morbid gaze from the bizarre physical objects to the societies that created them and the lessons they can impart — if we’re only brave enough to take a closer look.
Dark Archives starts with the “science” part of its title. Much of Rosenbloom’s work wouldn’t be possible without peptide mass fingerprinting, a technique that uses mass spectrometry to analyze proteins found in collagen. More durable than DNA, the collagen found in each mammal contains a unique amino acid sequence. This creates a distinct “fingerprint,” making it possible to identify mammalian sources at the family or even species level. Harvard chemist Daniel Kirby applied the test to Harvard’s three alleged “skin books” in 2014 and traced two back to the Bovidae family, concluding that they were bound in sheepskin; Des Destinées de l’âme was traced to the Hominidae, or great ape family. As there are no known examples of books bound in the skin of nonhuman apes, the results confirmed the note written on the book’s front flyleaf: “A book on the human soul merits that it be given human clothing.” After hearing Kirby’s results, Rosenbloom reached out to ask if he’d be willing to train her on the methodology, and the Anthropodermic Book Project was born. Since 2014, the team — made up of two chemists, a museum curator, and Rosenbloom — has verified 18 alleged skin books and identified over 50 that merit testing. The group’s mission is to identify and test as many alleged anthropodermic books as possible and “dispel long-held myths about the most macabre books in history.”
Being on the front lines of a new science is thrilling; discovering each test result, Rosenbloom says, “feels like opening a present on Christmas morning.” Not everyone shares Rosenbloom’s enthusiasm, however. Many librarians are repelled by the skin books (alleged or verified) their institutions harbor and complain about the attention these books garner relative to other holdings. “A research library full of amazing stuff and people want to see this,” says John Pollack, curator at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center, when Rosenbloom asks to see their skin book. Pollack’s reaction is common, though some librarians feel more than just vague annoyance. When Harvard announced the results of Kirby’s analysis, a Princeton librarian wrote a scathing salvo calling on Harvard library to disbind the book and bury the human remains. (Full disclosure: several years and a half-dozen intervening jobs later, I’ve returned to Houghton and am one of several librarians responsible for the care of Des Destinées.) Some librarians and collectors responded in agreement. Rosenbloom gives space to these arguments in her book; in one chapter, she sits down with the same Princeton librarian, who remains disappointed there hasn’t been more public debate about these objects and what libraries should do with them. Though sympathetic to his desire for discussion, Rosenbloom is resolute in her view that these books deserve a place in library and museum collections, a position Harvard and other institutions have also taken. Rather than be destroyed, she argues, these books must be reckoned with. “We are finding new ways of reckoning with this truth all the time,” she points out, reminding us that her research could not have been conducted if the evidence had been destroyed before peptide mass fingerprinting was discovered.
In her efforts to reckon with these books, Rosenbloom has unlocked some of the lessons they hold. Among these is the late development of ethics in clinical medicine, which comes up throughout Rosenbloom’s research. As the Anthropodermic Book Project applied its test to more alleged skin books, a preponderance of the verified cases turned out to be medical treatises bound in human skin by bibliophile doctors in the 19th century. “Every time I tried to research a book, I would almost always find a doctor involved,” Rosenbloom observes. These chapters of Dark Archives are among the most compelling; the author’s twin qualities of curiosity and empathy allow her to explore the motivations of both doctor and patient, exploiter and exploited.
As she takes readers through the origins of three books found at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, all bound by the same doctor, Rosenbloom dispels any notion that the physician was a lone mad scientist in a seedy laboratory. Rather, we learn that the owner of the books, John Stockton Hough, was a 19th-century Philadelphia doctor who specialized in women’s health, was respected among physicians and book collectors, and even developed a speculum for gynecological use. The three books he had bound in skin were important works on women’s health and reproductive biology. The skin used for the bindings was taken from the thighs of Mary Lynch, whose autopsy Hough performed at Philadelphia’s Old Blockley Hospital. Lynch’s position in society — young, Irish, widowed, and from a desperately poor family — made her a candidate for dissection before receiving a pauper’s burial behind the hospital. Hough took her skin because he could, but also because the coldness of that period’s clinical gaze had compromised the respect doctors should have for their patients and for corpses. The relationship between Hough and Lynch serves as a visceral reminder of a chapter in medical history before the advent of informed consent. In fact, Rosenbloom tells us, all of the verified examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy were created before the mid-20th century, when medical consent was codified into law.
Rosenbloom’s investigations into the past lives of these books have a humanizing effect: her work attaches names and experiences to objects that would otherwise remain grotesque curiosities. A trial transcript bound in human skin in Bristol reveals the story of Englishman William Corder and his fiancée Ann Marten, for whose murder Corder was convicted in 1828. The punishment for murder at the time was not only hanging but also public dissection, which explains how his skin might have been procured for the binding. A memoir bound in human skin at the Boston Athenaeum tells the story of James Allen (a.k.a. George Walton, a.k.a. Jonas Pierce, a.k.a. Burley Grove), a 19th-century New England highway robber who wrote his reminiscences in prison and arranged for them to be published after his death. Allen not only stipulated that they be bound in his own skin but also asked that they be gifted to John Fenno Jr., the only man to ever outwit him in a stick-up. Dark Archives relays these stories with care, connecting names and histories with the relics left behind.
At the end of the book, Rosenbloom describes her connection to the Mütter Museum’s “American Giant,” a seven-foot-six-inch skeleton of an anonymous man who suffered from acromegaly (also known as gigantism), a hormonal disorder that causes unusual bone growth in adults. Rosenbloom’s mother suffered from the same disorder but was harrowingly diagnosed and treated just in time to save her life. Standing in front of the giant, Rosenbloom wonders what his name was, whether he had a daughter who worried about him, and whether the doctor who put him behind glass over 150 years ago had ever considered these questions. “Did they see his skeleton as the remains of a person, or simply as a tool to teach medical students about a rare disorder?” she asks. Dark Archives shows scholars and stewards of cultural heritage how to do both.