A Book by Its Cover

The strange history of books bound in human skin.

By Megan Rosenbloom

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Festival of the Cult of the Supreme Being, by Pierre-Antoine Demachy, 1794.

In 1794, by decree of the National Convention under the leadership of Maximilien Robespierre, all villages in France were obliged to celebrate the first (and what would prove to be the last) Festival of the Supreme Being. In the village of Meudon, just south of Paris, a parade escorted a woman dressed as the goddess Reason to her temple, which was known as the Church of Saint-Martin before the revolutionaries repurposed the churches. Those celebrating in Meudon had little idea that they were the talk of the concurrent grand festival in Paris.

On the Champs de Mars, near where the Eiffel Tower would one day stand, Robespierre and his artist friend Jacques-Louis David had devised quite a spectacle for the Festival of the Supreme Being, with a man-made mountain at its center and atop it a giant tree of liberty. Members of the National Convention weaved through the crowd carrying bouquets of flowers, fruits, and ears of corn, wearing “national blue” coats (no longer were they royal blue) and suede culottes. Some in the crowd whispered that their culottes were made from the skins of recently executed Christians and other enemies of the Republic, at a special tannery for producing human leather in Meudon.

These rumors, so outlandish today, likely seemed within the realm of possibility in the bloody and unmoored atmosphere of 1794. Reports of atrocities committed on behalf of the revolution flooded in from all corners of France; sometimes thousands of people were executed in a town in a single day. Often those carrying out political murders would themselves face the guillotine when the political winds shifted yet again. With the Festival of the Supreme Being Robespierre had attempted to insert deism into the Republic as a replacement for both the king’s Catholicism and the revolutionary atheism that followed, an initiative that was received coolly by his colleagues at the National Convention. About a month after the festival, Robespierre fell out of favor and was executed, signaling the end of what became known as the Reign of Terror. The mass killings—coupled with the revolutionaries’ dramatic flair in staging executions—made claims of horrific pageantry involving human remains believable, and these rumors reverberated throughout the centuries.

A Republican general named Beysser was said to have worn culottes fashioned from the vanquished Chouans while riding his horse in battle. King Louis XVI’s cousin Louis Philippe, who renamed himself Phillipe Égalité and joined the Jacobins in revolution, reportedly sported human-skin culottes impressively made of one piece of human skin with no sewing. In addition to human-hide fashion, talk proliferated about human-skin-bound books, now called anthropodermic bibliopegy. At Le Bal du Zéphir, a legendary (and possibly fictitious) ball held inside a French cemetery, human-skin-bound leaflets of Droits de l’Homme were said to be given out as party favors. To this day books belonging to men like Armand-Jérôme Bignon, librarian to Louis XV, bear inscriptions such as “religatum de pelle humana” or “reliée en peau humaine,” though these are the only possible indicators of their bindings’ disturbing pedigree.

Real anthropodermic books do exist, originating in France as well as Britain and the United States and primarily created in the nineteenth century. The most legendary French skin tomes—Marquis de Sade’s Justine et Juliette bound in a woman’s skin or French erotica with a visible human nipple on the cover—prove to be the most difficult to find. Such dark curiosities are tucked away in private collections (if they exist at all) and difficult to examine and determine if they are really human leather. Only now is it scientifically possible to separate reality from myth. I am a member of a team of chemists, librarians, and museum professionals at the Anthropodermic Book Project who have identified forty-seven allegedly anthropodermic books in public libraries and museums. Of the thirty we have tested so far, twelve have bindings from a nonhuman animal of origin and eighteen are indeed tanned human skin. The scientific process of peptide mass fingerprinting, or PMF, uses unique peptide markers in the collagen of each animal family to determine the leather’s source. The DNA in these books is too degraded from time and tanning to be successfully extracted by today’s testing methods. With the PMF test we now know that the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s 1709 copy of John Locke’s An Essay on Human Understanding (Libri IV de intellectu humanu), highly influential among the thinkers of the French Revolution, is bound in cattle hide, contrary to the inscription by an Ethel Barnett that claimed: “This ancient book has Latin within and is bound in a nice little piece of my skin.” Testing of a 1671 prayer book at the University of California’s Bancroft Library (the book’s inscription states it was rebound in the skin of its former owner, a clergy member executed in the French Revolution) found that its pebbly black cover comes from a horse, not a human. Yet the binding on Brown University’s copy of Mademoiselle Giraud, My Wife, the controversial 1891 French novel with lesbian themes by Adolphe Belot, is indeed of human origin, as are three seventeenth-century French gynecological works, which at some point were bound in the skin of a poor American woman who died of trichinosis and tuberculosis in a Philadelphia hospital in 1868.

Scratching the surface of the history of any real human-skin book usually reveals a doctor was the one wielding the knife. At a time when physicians were climbing social classes and enjoying the trappings of their new wealth and status—including becoming collectors of fine art and books—at least a few chose to preserve the hides of deceased indigent patients to bind copies of their own work or of those that they admired, like anatomist Andreas Vesalius. (Brown University’s Hay Library holds a large, beautiful anthropodermic Vesalius, in addition to three other books proved to be bound in human skin.) At the same time, public executions were one of the only legal sources for obtaining bodies for dissection. Doctors sometimes removed the skins of infamous murderers and used them to bind books about their deeds—a fact well known enough to serve as a kind of deterrent. The most infamous case is the pocket-sized book bound in the skin of William Burke, half of the Scottish duo Burke and Hare, who murdered sixteen people in order to sell their bodies to doctors for dissection. Like his unfortunate victims, Burke could not escape the anatomist’s knife in the end, and his skin book resides in Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh. While doctors today refuse to participate in executions, citing the principle of “first do no harm,” doctors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries worked with their governments to ensure their access to dead bodies for anatomical learning.

William Burke’s death mask and pocket book, Surgeons’ Hall Museum, Edinburgh.

Aside from being the source of the first pervasive rumors of books bound in human skin, the French Revolution was a turning point in the professionalization of medicine. Prior to that time, only members of the aristocracy consistently enjoyed access to doctors. Commoners were cared for at home by their families—except for the poor and homeless, who sometimes received care at charity hospitals run by the Catholic Church. While establishing new secular state structures, the Republic made a priority of elevating public health by providing greater access to health care. That required stricter training guidelines for physicians, and state-sanctioned licenses emerged as a way to regulate public health. Most important, doctors in training would spend time learning at the bedsides of patients in clinics, setting the foundations for clinical medicine. Coinciding with the development of diagnostic tests and tools (such as the stethoscope), a new mandate for at least three years of scientific education and supervised experience in a clinic became known as the Paris School. This medical-educational paradigm eventually became standard in the Western world. The increase in the number of patients doctors saw regularly gave them a greater body of clinical experience to draw upon, but it also pulled focus away from individual patients, their stories, and how those stories shaped the clinical encounter. Michel Foucault wrote in The Birth of the Clinic that this structure led to the development of the clinical gaze, where diagnostic science and stresses of the job contributed to doctors viewing patients as disembodied symptoms, diseases, and organs instead of as fellow human beings. The book bound in human skin could serve as an example of that tendency. Patients’ skins became raw material for binding a doctor’s prized books instead of the thin membrane between a human’s internal workings and the outside world—an erasure of individuals with families and inalienable rights.

The revolutionaries forged the concept of these inalienable rights first with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789, and then with the expanded Constitution in 1793. One of the additions in the intervening years dealt with the abolition of slavery: “Every man can contract his services and his time, but he cannot sell himself nor be sold: his person is not an alienable property.” The book bound in human skin alienates the person from a corporeal self. The resulting artifact, while made from a human, becomes a dehumanized object. It is for that reason we tend not to gaze upon an average bookshelf and envision rows of individual cows. Viewed through the lens of doctors taking liberties with patients’ hides, the allegedly anthropodermic copy of the 1793 Constitution and Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen held at the Musée du Carnavalet in Paris seems all the more perverse.

Lawrence S. Thompson, former director of libraries at the University of Kentucky, wrote the bulk of the scholarship about anthropodermic bibliopegy in the mid-twentieth century. His early writings repeat the rumors about Meudon and tie them to the Carnavalet book, but in subsequent writings, he casts doubts: “The yet unwritten unprejudiced history of the French Revolution will devote several chapters to this propaganda about the Meudon tannery.” Thompson wrote about visiting Paris and seeing the Carnavalet book himself, which he said was a common stop for learned men on the grand tour. He described the book as light green in color and looking like “the skin of a suckling pig.” Following in his footsteps some half-century later, I found the book in question is a rich, deep camel brown with no hint of green. It is gold tooled with delightful marbled endpapers adorned with vibrant bubbles of blue, yellow, black, white, red, and brown. Inside are copious handwritten notes consistent with the time in which the book was created, explaining the steps for ratifying the Constitution (though the 1793 version was never fully enacted). A different hand on an adjacent page gives its printing details and the telltale signifier “reliée en peau humaine.” The museum’s acquisitions register states that it was purchased from the estate of the Marquis de Turgot and refers to its “famous binding in duodecimo having belonged to [the naval officer Pierre-Charles] Villeneuve and passing for being made in human skin imitating calf.” Our Anthropodermic Book Project team is currently working to get permission to test this book’s leather. If such testing reveals it to be human, it would be the first legend of French Revolution human-skin objects that proved to be true, once again altering our understanding of the atrocities of the era.

Though such stories from this period were widespread and varied, the rumored origins of these macabre objects always trace back to the Château de Meudon. The castle sat on a slope overlooking Paris, four kilometers away. An observatory now on the same site takes advantage of its unobstructed views. In 1695 Louis XIV acquired the chateau and greatly expanded it to serve as a residence for his son Louis XV, whose designer furnished it in the highest Regency style. Louis XV used the chateau occasionally as a hunting lodge, but preferred the nearby Château de Choisy or the Château de Bellevue (where his mistress Madame de Pompadour resided), rendering Meudon mostly unoccupied. Under Louis XVI, the Château de Meudon fell into further disrepair. With the revolution the royal properties were stripped of their finery, leaving Meudon a ghostly shell of its former glory. It was in this ruin that a tannery specializing in leather made from human-skin was purportedly built, despite the property’s distance from the water required to undertake such an enterprise. Nevertheless rumors of the tannery would arise, dissipate, and be taken up anew well into the twentieth century in histories both popular and academic. Today most scholars and Meudon’s town historical society dismiss the tannery claims as pure fantasy and royalist propaganda, but other secret dealings did take place on site.

Demolition of the Château of Meudon, by Hubert Robert, 1806. J. Paul Getty Museum.

Beginning with the French Revolution and into the early nineteenth century, France fought wars on multiple fronts as kingdoms such as Prussia, Austria, Great Britain, and Spain sought to exploit what they viewed as France’s weakened state. But France and her artillery were stronger than initially thought, and the fledgling republic won decisive victories throughout Europe. The National Convention called for a mass conscription of soldiers to fight on these fronts and employed some disused chateaus for the war effort. Eventually a tannery was built in the nearby town of Sèvres, where tanners produced soldiers’ shoes made from the typical, nonhuman leather. At Meudon, inventor Nicolas-Jacques Conté repurposed the chateau and some of its surrounding fields for shooting ranges and ballistics testing, focusing on top-secret tests of military uses of hydrogen balloons. In the spring of 1794, the balloon company Compagnie d’Aérostiers was formed at Meudon. By summer the French deployed balloons to survey the coalition army, leading them to victory at the Battle of Fleurus. So Meudon did have a history of covert operations: it was the first place to put hot-air balloons to military use. That of course is a much less macabre distinction than the human skin tannery for which the village became known. Until a book from the French Revolution era tests positive for being of human origin, these rumors may prove to be little more than hot air.


Explore Flesh, the Fall 2016 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly.