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Skin Game


Acumen Staff Report

When French physician Ludovic Bouland bound the book, Des Destinées de l’Ame (or Destinies of the Soul), with human skin, the ethical ramifications were never considered. This week, Harvard University, which has had possession of the volume for nearly 200 years, determined it was time to formally and publicly denounce the practice, remove the bindings, and inter the remains.

Though most people today find the binding of books using human skin reprehensible, the practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy was once "somewhat common," according to Harvard librarians, who told The Guardian UK, "the binding of books in human skin has occurred at least since the 16th century." Harvard noted that "confessions of criminals were occasionally bound in the skin of the convicted, or an individual might request to be memorialized for family or lovers in the form of a book." This, however, was not the case for Bouland, who took the skin from a deceased female patient in a hospital where he worked without the knowledge or consent of the patient's family. And while Bouland celebrated the meticulous care he took in removing skin from the tubercular patient's thigh in 1868 to bind three of his favorite books, little celebration is made of it today.

"It is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. 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," Bouland wrote.

#EugenicallySpeaking, Bouland and others who counted skin coverings and bindings as elegant did so using the flesh of the most vulnerable around them. For instance, the patient Bouland robbed of skin was a 28-year-old Irish widow named Mary Lynch. Lynch had been admitted to Ward 27 of Philadelphia General Hospital four years before her death. Like most asylums of its day, Ward 27 comprised facilities for the poor in West Philadelphia and included the hospital, as well as an orphanage, poorhouse, and insane asylum. In the same manner that bodies of the "weak" were gifted or sold to medical schools and colleges, it is believed that the flesh of those patients, similarly, became useful to merchants seeking material for their trades.

In a curious twist, bragging rights to owning skin-bound books led to more than a few rumors of volumes held together by the flesh of notable figures - some true and some not. In one fantastical case, The Wellcome Collection in London holds in its catalog a small notebook "professe[d] to be ‘made of Tanned skin of the Negro whose Execution caused the War of Independence’." Yes, the skin of Crispus Attucks, the famed historical figure, who as a dockworker of Wampanoag led the charge in the Revolutionary War and was the first person killed by the British during the Boston Massacre, is documented as binding a book. The notebook (pictured above) is held as treasured ephemera of the American Revolution.

It has only been in recent years when new staff become acquainted with the skin-bound holdings in archives of places like The University of Pennsylvania and Harvard, that bells of unethical treatment of the infirmed, sound. These are eugenics-based abuses commited in the name of science for the enjoyment and status of the wealthy.

Houghton Library archivist Tom Hyry said in a Q&A issued by Harvard about its dilemma, “As you can imagine, this has been an unusual circumstance for us in the library and we have learned a great deal as we arrived at our decision. The core problem with the volume’s creation was a doctor who didn’t see a whole person in front of him and carried out an odious act of removing a piece of skin from a deceased patient, almost certainly without consent, and used it in a book binding that has been handled by many for more than a century," Hyry said. "We believe it’s time the remains be put to rest.”

The real question is how many other library and archival bindings hold the flesh of Americans' loved ones?


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