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Mutter Museum
Mutter Museum

The Bizarre Art of Binding Books in Human Skin

Mutter Museum
Mutter Museum

Helpful as its developments are, the field of modern medicine can be macabre, sickening, and even downright strange. We’ve left the leeches and holy water in the Middle Ages (for the most part), but some of the ideas that doctors have cooked up in the past two centuries in the name of science have exceeded anything ever done over a twitching plague victim. One such head-scratcher is a hobby of 19th century physician Joseph Leidy, who remembered his deceased patients by tanning their skin and using it to bind his favorite medical textbooks.

Yes, you read that right.

The dedication on the frontispiece of Leidy’s personal copy of his book An Elementary Treatise on Human Anatomy reads:

“The leather with which this book is bound is human skin, from a soldier who died during the great Southern Rebellion.” 

The binding itself looks soft, almost tender in its smooth beige ridges. One wonders what part of that nameless corporal or private it came from.

The bizarre art of binding books in human skin, or anthropodermic bibliopegy, dates back to at least the 17th century, and involves flaying the body and tanning the skin just like any other type of leather. It has most often been used by doctors as a way to honor a deceased patient or medical colleague, meaning that many surviving examples are anatomical texts such as Leidy’s. Several American universities, including Harvard and the University of Georgia, quietly keep an anthropodermic book or two (Brown supposedly has three), and the University of Pennsylvania library had to put in a distress call to the Admissions office after a tour guide happened to mention their rare skin-bound copy of Biblotheque Nationale and the library was flooded with curious potential students.

The donor of UPenn’s anthropodermic treasure, John Stockton Hough, was in fact a colleague of Dr. Leidy, a prominent Philadelphia physician who taught in the university’s dissection labs in the 1850s through the 1880s. Fairly obscure today, Leidy was well regarded in his lifetime as an anatomist, zoologist, paleontologist, and parasite expert. Besides publishing his anatomical treatise and treating Pennsylvania’s Civil War wounded, he put together the first near-complete skeleton of dinosaur fossils found in New Jersey and became an early advocate for Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Today, Leidy’s collection is on display at the College of Physicians’ Mütter Museum of medical oddities (a great way to spend an afternoon if you’re ever in Philly and hankering for a gallstone collection or a couple of deformed fetuses in jars). The dimly-lit shelf where Leidy’s book sits quietly next to a human-skin wallet and other examples of memorial tannery appears to be regarded impassively by a collection of European skulls, flanked by a section of primate skulls for comparison and by a handful of antique gynecological instruments. Elsewhere in the museum, on the floor above the death cast of conjoined “Siamese” twins Chang and Eng Bunker and the world’s largest colon, lies one of Leidy’s other great donations, a cadaver known as the Soap Lady: her 200-year-old corpse took on its black, sticky appearance when the heat and pressure of her grave transformed the fat in her body into a soapy substance called adipocere.

The emphasis of both the display of Dr. Leidy’s skin-bound books and the museum as a whole is that the curiosities on display are there for educational and even artistic purposes; they’re not simply freaks, or unfortunate quirks of the gene pool, but deeply human artifacts that can help us to riddle out the mysteries of disease and suffering. Just as the cadavers in his 1800s dissecting classroom helped Leidy teach his students the internal wonders of the human body, his book collection helps us to puzzle out what’s left on the outside after we die, and how it can be useful or beautiful when preserved from the ravages of time and decay.

Barnes & Noble bookstores’ website still offers a free copy of Leidy’s anatomical treatise, by the way, reprinted from the 1889 edition. It’s only an e-book, though, so the skin binding will have to be left up to you.  

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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
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In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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Trash Collectors in Turkey Use Abandoned Books to Build a Free Library
Adem Altan, AFP/Getty Images
Adem Altan, AFP/Getty Images

A stack of books abandoned on the sidewalk can be a painful sight for bibliophiles. But in Ankara, Turkey, garbage collectors are using books left to be discarded to build a free library. As CNN reports, their library of salvaged literature is currently 6000 titles strong.

The collection grew gradually as sanitation workers began saving books they found on their routes, rather then hauling them away with the rest of the city’s trash. The books were set aside for employees and their families to borrow, but eventually news of their collection expanded beyond the sanitation department. Instead of leaving books on the curb, residents started donating their unwanted books directly to the cause. Soon the idea arose of opening a full library for the public to enjoy.

Man reading book at shelf.
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With support from the local government, the library opened in the Çankaya district of Ankara in September 2017. Located in an abandoned brick factory on the sanitation department’s property, it features literature for children, resources for scientists, and books for English and French speakers. The space also includes a lounge where visitors can read their books or play chess. The loan period for books lasts two weeks, but just like at a regular library, readers are given the option to renew their tomes.

People reading books in a library.
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The experiment has proven more successful than anyone anticipated: The library is so well-stocked that local schools, prisons, and educational programs can now borrow from its inventory. The Turkish sanitation workers deserve high praise, but discarded book-loving pioneers in other parts of the world should also get some recognition: For decades, José Alberto Gutiérrez has been using his job collecting garbage to build a similar library in Colombia.

[h/t CNN]

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