Books Bound in Human Skin: An Ethical Quandary at the Library
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The New York International Antiquarian Book Fair is the place to inspect some of the most exquisite rare books on the market. But at this year’s event in early April, some browsers may have been unprepared for a small, grayish item on view: a book bound in human skin.

The book, which measures about 3 by 5 inches, came with a price tag of $45,000 — and a colorful back story. According to a statement by its owner, the binding was commissioned in 1682 by an Italian doctor and anatomist identified as Jacopo X, and has been kept by his descendants ever since.

Family lore held that during a dissection, Jacopo recognized the woman on the slab as an actress he had seen in Corneille’s comedy “Le Baron d’Albikrac.” He knew that unclaimed bodies sold to medical schools for dissection were rarely, if ever, given a proper burial. So he removed a piece of skin, and used it to bind a copy of the play.

“There was a sense that this was a tribute,” Ian Kahn, a dealer, explained to onlookers gathered at the counter of his booth before pulling out the book to offer a closer look.

Books bound in human skin — and the sometimes sensational stories surrounding them — have long occupied an odd place in the annals of the rare book world. Over the years, they have been whispered, bragged and joked about.

But over the past decade, the conversation has shifted. Many institutions whose collections include these books have sharply restricted access, as they have found themselves unexpectedly embroiled in the same debates about displaying — or even owning — human remains that have swept across museums.

The conversation was jolted anew last month when Harvard University announced that it had removed the skin binding from a notorious book in its collections, and that it would be seeking “a final, respectful disposition.” The university also apologized for “past failures in its stewardship,” which it said had “further objectified and compromised the dignity of the human being whose remains were used” for the binding.

The announcement drew headlines around the world. But so far, the reaction from rare book experts has been muted — and mixed.

“It was a bold move to put out a press release not just about the presence of human skin books, but about a potentially controversial way of dealing with the issue,” said Allie Alvis, a curator at the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library in Delaware. Too many institutions, Alvis says, are unwilling to say much about them at all.

But others are troubled by what they see as the destruction of a historical artifact, and the imposition of 21st-century sensibilities onto objects from different times and contexts.

Megan Rosenbloom, a former medical librarian and the author of “Dark Archives,” a study of the history and science of anthropodermic (or skin-bound) books, said that destroying or disposing of these objects would close off future scholarship and fresh understandings.

“We should treat these books as respectfully as possible, but try not to bury literally and figuratively what happened to these people,” she said. “It’s hubris to think we’ve come to the end of our evolution of how we think about human remains.”

And moves like Harvard’s, Rosenbloom added, could backfire.

“If all anthropodermic books are taken out of institutions,” she said, “the rest of these books on the private market will probably go further underground, where they might be treated less respectfully.”

Claims of books bound in human skin have circulated for centuries. But the ability to confirm them scientifically — using a technique called peptide mass fingerprinting — is only about a decade old.

In 2015, Rosenbloom and others started the Anthropodermic Book Project, with the goal of uncovering “the historical truths behind the innuendo.” So far, the project has identified 51 purported examples worldwide, 18 of which have been confirmed as bound in human skin. Another 14 have been debunked.

An unknown number of others sit in private libraries. Kahn, whose firm, Lux Mentis, handles a lot of “challenging material,” as he put it, said he knows of several collectors in Paris who have skin-bound books.

The oldest reputed examples are three 13th-century Bibles held at the Bibliothèque Nationale in France. The largest number date from the Victorian era, the heyday of anatomical collecting, when doctors sometimes had medical treatises and other texts bound in skin from patients or cadavers.

Other examples relate to criminals or prisoners. At the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in Scotland, a display about the 19th-century growth of the medical profession includes a small notebook purportedly bound in the skin of William Burke, part of a duo of notorious serial killers who sold their victims’ bodies for dissection. The Boston Athenaeum owns one bound in the skin of a man who, before he died in prison, had asked that two copies of his memoir and deathbed confession be bound in his skin.

While most known skin bindings are from Europe or North America, some involve wild claims, like a book at the Newberry Library in Chicago said to have been “found in the palace of the King of Delhi” during the 1857 mutiny against British rule. (Lab examination, according to the library, concluded it was actually “highly burnished goat.”)

“There’s often a sense of othering of these books,” said Alvis, the curator of Winterthur Museum, who posts about rare books on social media as @book_historia. “They don’t come from the noble white person, but this strange person from foreign climes.”

Current testing cannot identify race or sex of the skin. But at least a half-dozen 19th-century examples involve skin purportedly taken from female patients or cadavers by male doctors, with several used to cover books about female biology or sexuality (like a treatise on virginity held at the Wellcome Collection in London).

And a few examples, both rumored and confirmed, have racial connections that, whatever the intentions behind the bindings, may play uncomfortably today.

Two volumes of poems by Phillis Wheatley, the first person of African descent to publish a book in the United States, have been confirmed as bound in human skin. But a pocket-size notebook at the Wellcome Collection, long claimed to have been bound in the skin of Crispus Attucks, a mixed-race Black and Native man recognized as the first person to die for American independence, is likely bound in camel, horse or goat skin, according to the museum.

The volume at Harvard, an 1879 philosophical treatise called “Des Destinées de L’Ame,” or “The Destiny of Souls,” was bound by a French doctor named Ludovic Bouland, who inserted a note saying that “a book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering.” It was placed at Harvard’s Houghton Library in 1934 by John Stetson, an heir to the hat fortune, along with another note saying that the skin came from a woman who died in a psychiatric hospital.

According to Harvard, library lore holds that “decades ago” the book was sometimes used to haze unsuspecting student workers. But questions about the library’s recent stewardship emerged in 2014, after the library published a jokey blog post describing the confirmation of the skin binding as “good news for cannibals.”

Paul Needham, a prominent rare book expert who retired from Princeton in 2020, was deeply offended, and began calling on Harvard to remove the skin and give it a “respectful burial.”

“I think that the way the Houghton Library treated this was a disservice to the world of rare book collecting,” he said.

The library imposed some restrictions on access in 2015. Winds shifted further in 2021, when Harvard formed a Steering Committee on Human Remains to examine all of its collections, as an outgrowth of its efforts to reckon with its historic entanglements with slavery.

A single skin-bound book from 19th-century France may seem like a small thing amid the more than 20,000 human remains in Harvard’s collections, including 6,500 from Native Americans, which critics say are not being researched and repatriated quickly enough.

But to Needham, who was involved in starting an affinity group to pressure Harvard into burying the skin of what the group called “the violated woman trapped in the binding,” the moral imperative is clear: The proper disposition of human remains should take ethical precedence, particularly where the person has not given consent.

“What 100 years from now would be the potential new research that would be done?” Needham said. “I just can’t imagine it.”

Harvard’s decision is drawing heightened attention to skin-bound volumes elsewhere, including one at the Cleveland Public Library: an 1867 edition of the Quran, acquired in 1941 from a dealer who had described it as “formerly the property of the East Arab chief Bushiri ibn Salim who revolted against the Germans in 1888.”

For decades, the book typically received a handful of requests a year for access, said John Skrtic, the library’s chief of collections. But earlier this year, the library made it off-limits, pending testing.

“The library has long believed the undocumented claim in the dealer’s catalog, regarding its binding, to be false and finds the claim sensationalistic and deeply offensive,” the Cleveland Public Library said in a statement. The library will “engage leaders in the local Muslim community to chart an ethical path forward.”

Harvard’s approach is also generating strong criticism. Eric Holzenberg, a book scholar who recently retired as director of the Grolier Club in Manhattan, said that the destruction of the binding “accomplishes nothing,” beyond expressing disapproval of “the acts of people long dead.”

“Harvard, it seems to me, has taken the easy way out,” Holzenberg said. “No doubt the proper, cautious, committee-generated, risk-averse approach, but ultimately I fear at the expense of sound scholarship and responsible stewardship.”

Rosenbloom, the author of “Dark Archives,” said she questioned the tendency to pull these objects, which were generally not created or collected in a context of colonialism, into models developed to address those injustices. And she wondered why Harvard had removed the binding before finishing full provenance research.

In response to emailed questions, Thomas Hyry, the director of Houghton Library, and Anne-Marie Eze, its associate librarian, said they did not believe dismantling of the binding would limit future scholarship.

“The decisions we have made to remove the human remains from our volume will not erase what we know about this practice for those studying the history of the book,” they said.

Some libraries that have undertaken an ethical review of their anthropodermic books have reached different conclusions.

Brown University’s John Hay Library has four books confirmed as bound in human skin, including an edition of Vesalius’s landmark 1543 anatomical atlas, “On the Structure of the Human Body.” In the past, they were promoted on campus tours and sometimes brought out for Halloween and other events.

But in 2019, the library’s new director, Amanda Strauss, paused any showing of the books, while developing policies that balanced respect for human remains with the library’s research mandate.

“We don’t want to censor access to controversial or disturbing material,” she said. “And we don’t want to shame anyone for their interest.”

Today, images of the books’ pages (but not the bindings) are available online, while access to the physical books is limited to people conducting research on medical ethics or anthropodermic bindings.

Strauss said she would be uncomfortable with any alteration or destruction of the bindings, which she said amounted to “erasure.”

“We can’t pretend this wasn’t a practice and this didn’t happen,” she said. “Because it did, and we have the evidence.”

With any macabre object, the line between morbid curiosity and the pursuit of understanding may be hard to draw.

Kahn, the dealer, said he wanted to “demystify” books bound in skin, which he said can prompt conversations about ethics, knowledge and our own status as animals. At the book fair, many seemed open to those questions and curious, however queasily, to touch the Corneille volume.

One browser, Helen Lukievics, a retired lawyer, said she had read about the Harvard book and shuddered. But she was persuaded, she said, by the idea that this particular binding had been meant as a “tribute” to the actress.

“It’s fabulously appalling,” she said. She paused. “It’s a piece of history.”

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