Brown University’s library boasts an unusual anatomy book. Tanned and polished to a smooth golden brown, its cover looks and feels no different from any other fine leather.
But here’s its secret: the book is bound in human skin.
A number of prestigious libraries — including Harvard University’s — have such books in their collections. While the idea of making leather from human skin seems bizarre and cruel today, it was not uncommon in centuries past, said Laura Hartman, a rare book cataloger at the National Library of Medicine in Maryland and author of a paper on the subject.
An article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from the late 1800s "suggests that it was common, but it also indicates it wasn’t talked about in polite society," Hartman said.
The best libraries then belonged to private collectors. Some were doctors who had access to skin from amputated parts and patients whose bodies were not claimed. They found human leather to be relatively cheap, durable and waterproof, Hartman said.
In other cases, wealthy bibliophiles may have acquired the skin from criminals who were executed, cadavers used in medical schools and people who died in the poor house, said Sam Streit, director of Brown’s John Hay Library.
The library has three books bound in human skin — the anatomy text and two 19th century editions of "The Dance of Death," a medieval morality tale.
One copy of "The Dance of Death" dates to 1816 but was rebound in 1893 by Joseph Zaehnsdorf, a master binder in London. A note to his client reports that he did not have enough skin and had to split it. The front cover, bound in the outer layer of the epidermis, has a slightly bumpy texture, like soft sandpaper. The spine and back cover, made from the inner layer of skin, feels like suede.
Zaehnsdorf probably left the covers plain to showcase the material, Streit said.
Brown’s other "Dance of Death" edition, done in 1898, is more elaborately decorated with inlays of black leather and a gold-tooled skull. But a closer examination reveals the pores of the skin’s former owner.
The story, Streit said, is about how death prevails over all, rich or poor. As with many of the skin-bound books, "there was some tie in with the content of the book," he said.
While human leather may be repulsive to contemporary society, libraries can ethically have the books in their collections if they are used respectfully for academic research and not displayed as objects of curiosity, says Paul Wolpe of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.
"There is a certain distancing that history gives us from certain kinds of artifacts," Wolpe said, noting that museums often have bones from archaeological sites. "If you had called me and said these are books from Nazi Germany, I would have a very different response."