The Corpse Corpus: Human Skin Books

Lamps, wastebaskets, leggings, corsets, belts, and chairs are all examples of various things found in the home of Plainfield, WI native Ed Gein. While we all own such ordinary items, it is (hopefully, probably) safe to assume ours are not fashioned out of human skin like Gein's were. Gein, infamous for the murders of two Wisconsin women, used the skin of his victims to decorate household objects. While Ed's aesthetic proclivities are often viewed as uniquely deviant and aberrant, the human skin trophies found in his house may have more in common with the local library than we might initially think.



In-human(e) Books

Anthropodermic bibliopegy, or the process of binding books with human skin, materially manifests inhumanity in bookmaking, their pages literally bound {in-humanity}. And unlike the other critters posted in this Bestiary of the Book blog, there exists a dissonant relationship between the conception of what it is to be human and the irreverent--and terribly morbid--binding of it.


Like other oddities that fall under the label of the disturbing and the macabre, most of the rumored human skin books, with misshapen, wrinkled faces poking out of the covers, are fakes. In fact, these melodramatic features separate the counterfeit from the real according to librarian, archivist, and human skin book researcher Megan Rosenbloom:


“[Real human skin books] do not look much different from any other antiquarian book you would find on the shelf. It is likely some are quietly resting in library stacks, hiding in plain sight. Even if you were holding one right now, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell,” (excerpt from Dark Archives).

Despite this chilling idea, of the roughly 129,864,880 books in the world, about 50 of those are rumored to be human skin books. This ratio makes the likelihood of accidentally encountering one exceedingly rare. But if a real human skin book doesn’t make itself known by obvious ghoulishness, how can we possibly tell the difference?

Being unable to tell the difference between human and animal skin books has led to recent interest in the verification of human skin books, spurring Megan Rosenbloom and a team to start The Anthropodermic Book Project. This project aims to scientifically process and identify every rumored human skin book in existence. Using peptide mass fingerprinting, the team has verified that 18 of the 50 possible human skin books are in fact bound in human skin, while 13 of them are bound in other animal leathers (typically sheepskin or pigskin). There are still 19 books in the process of being tested.


But...why though????

Rosenbloom's Dark Archives details the findings thus far of The Anthropodermic Book Project, and gestures to the universal question that immediately springs to mind when faced with the reality of human skin books: Why?

Unsurprisingly, human skin books are typically interested in questions of mortality and the body. They mostly include medical texts from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Because of their mystique and controversial nature, it is rare to find the provenance or an explanation for the binding of a human skin book. However, a Houghton library blog on anthropodermic bibliopegy provides one explanation for the binding of its infamous Des destinées de lâme (Destinies of the Soul), pictured below and to the right. Des destinées, written by Arsène Houssaye, meditates on the soul, the afterlife, and meaning after death. Houssaye presented this work to his friend, bibliophile and doctor Ludovic Bouland, who then decided to bind it in human skin. As one does! Bouland gives his reason for this via an introductory autograph manuscript note:


“By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman."

Another skin book forged by friendship, The Narrative of the Life of James Allen, Alias George Walton, Alias Jonas Pierce, Alias James H. York, Alias Burley Grove the Highwayman details the life of James Allen (aka George Walton, aka Jonas Pierce, aka James H. York, aka Burley Grove) and his many criminal pursuits. Like Bouland, Allen was only able to bind his skin book with a little help from his friends, as it was Allen's skin that was used to do the actual binding of his own story. In fact, James Allen's bookbinding narrative begins where most end: with a capital punishment sentence. While imprisoned for robbery, Allen came down with consumption. During his illness, the former highwayman met with his burglary victim, asking forgiveness and mending fences. Inspired by this meeting and physically weakened by tuberculosis, Allen asked the prison warden to help him transcribe his life story. However, Allen really put their friendship to the test when he additionally asked the warden to bind the narrative with his skin posthumously. Perhaps his dying wish was a way of asserting a modicum of agency as an imprisoned person. After all, Allen found himself destined for death, doubly subjected to a literal prison and the physical prison of a terrible and incurable illness. All at once morbid and charming, Allen used human skin bookbinding to subvert state regulation and reclaim bodily agency. While Allen’s human skin book addresses his life story and criminal background, the material existence of the human skin binding itself tells a morbidly inspiring tale of unlikely friendships, reclaimed bodily agency, and human{narrativity}.



Holding the Human

In an essay reflecting on the human{narrativity} in human skin books like James Allen’s, Melissa Pritchard suggests that in some sense, we are all walking human skin books. As forbidding and ghastly as human skin books are, is there not something also terribly natural about the idea of binding human stories with human bodies? Our bodies tell our stories. Our feet move the plot along, our mouths form the words, our hands emphasize them like punctuation marks. Human skin books, for better or for worse, prove that sometimes our bodies become our stories, and, like in James Allen's case, sometimes our stories become our bodies, Storytelling is so innate within us, a “corps” concept of humanity, and we are so innate within our bodies that it seems impossible to separate the concept of narrativity from the body. To do so would be like tearing flesh.


Works Cited:

  1. Rosenbloom, Megan. Dark Archives: a Librarian's Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020. (Where to buy: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780374134709)

  2. Pritchard, Melissa. “On Bibliomancy, Anthropodermic Bibliopegy, and The Eating Papers; or, Proust's Porridge.” Conjunctions, no. 63, 2014, pp. 26–35. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24517831. Accessed 24 Nov. 2020.

Further Investigation:

  1. Nyffenegger, Nicole. “The Illicit Touch: Theorising Narratives of Abused Human Skin.” Touch, edited by Caterina Nirta et al., vol. 3, University of Westminster Press, London, 2020, pp. 195–234. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv11cvxbx.8. Accessed 24 Nov. 2020.

  2. Alie Ward's podcast Ologies ft. Megan Rosenbloom and Dan Kirby: https://www.alieward.com/ologies/anthropodermicbiocodicology

  3. Schechter, Harold. Deviant: The Shocking True Story of The Original 'Psycho'. Pocket, 1989.

  4. More information on scientist Dr. Daniel Kirby: https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/pmfcm/people/daniel-kirby-phd

  5. Last Podcast on the Left series on Ed Gein: (Explicit) https://www.lastpodcastontheleft.com/episodes/2017/12/30/episode-172-ed-gein-part-i-oddball