Dark Archives: Come for the floating goat balls, stay for the fascinating science!
TRIGGER WARNING! *Body Horror* Do not proceed reading this if you are sensitive to this subject
When you think about medical librarians and rare book specialists, chances are you picture them poring over rare tomes in a dusty archives—and chances are, you wouldn’t be wrong. But when Megan Rosenbloom set out to separate fact from fiction on the existence of rare books bound in human skin, her investigations took her to some uncommon places—like an artisanal tannery in upstate New York, where the floor resembled “Mountain Dew with chunks floating in it,” and emptying drums of tanning effluvia might just unleash a few floating goat testicles among the mix.
The technical term is “anthropodermic bibliopegy,” and Rosenbloom first became fascinated with this macabre practice in 2008, while she was still in library school and working for a medical publisher. While strolling through the vast collection of medical oddities at the famed Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, she came upon a glass display case holding an intriguing collection of rare books uncharacteristically displayed with their covers closed. The captions informed her that they had been bound in human skin, along with a leather wallet.
She was shocked to learn that such bindings were typically created by doctors as luxury items in their private rare book collections. “This wasn’t a doctor learning about anatomy through dissection,” Rosenbloom told Ars. “It wasn’t a specimen of rare disease used to educate people. Yet it didn’t seem like the doctors who made these books were Hannibal Lecter-type serial killers. They seemed to be upstanding doctors in the community. And I couldn’t understand in what context a seemingly normal doctor would feel okay doing that.”
Thus began a years-long journey, culminating with the publication in October of Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin, an engaging, thoughtful exploration of this morbid practice, handled with remarkable sensitivity. Rosenbloom is now a medical librarian in charge of the medical collections at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, as well as a member of the Order of the Good Death and co-founder of that organization’s Death Salon, devoted to fostering conversations and scholarship about mortality and mourning.
Her adventures in anthropodermic bibliopegy resulted in the founding of the Anthropodermic Book Project, a scientific collaboration that seeks to build a census of all the alleged books bound in human skin around the world, testing them to determine whether the bindings are truly human in origin. “We get emails probably once a week now from random people who think that Grandpa had a human skin book in their attic or something,” Rosenbloom said.
One of those confirmed books belongs to Harvard University’s Houghton Library: Des destinées de l’ame by Arsène Houssaye, created by one Dr. Ludovic Bouland of Strasbourg, who died in 1932. It was confirmed by Harvard chemist Daniel Kirby, who used peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF) to make the determination. The same method has been used to confirm the authenticity of all five books purported to be bound in human skin in the Mütter Museum. I’ll let Rosenbloom explain how it works:
First, remove a tiny chunk of a book’s binding with a scalpel or sharp tweezers; if the chunk is visible to the human eye, it is more than enough. The sample is digested in an enzyme called trypsin and the mixture is dropped onto a MALDI ( matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization) plate. The MALDI plate is placed into a mass spectrometer, where lasers irradiate the sample to identify its peptides (the short chains of amino acids that are the building blocks of proteins) and create a peptide mass fingerprint (PMF). The “fingerprint” looks like a line graph of peaks and valleys, and each fingerprint corresponds with an entry in a library of known examples from animals. Each animal family shares a strain of protein markers that act as reference points scientists can use to distinguish one from another.
OP credit: Written by Jennifer Ouellette – 12/27/2020