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Sheepish: Juniata Tests Book Purported to be Bound in Human Skin

(Posted August 19, 2014)

"Biblioteca Politica"

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- People walk into the hushed atmosphere of a library to gain enlightenment or read magazines, not to be creeped out. Which is why the staff of Juniata College's Beeghly Library was relieved to find out that a book in its historical collection, purported to be bound in human skin, does not live up to its gooseflesh-inducing historical reputation.

According to John Mumford, Juniata's librarian, the college has had the book "Biblioteca Politica," in the historical collection for a century, coming to the college as part of a collection purchase in 1899. "Biblioteca Politica," a 1650-1690 book containing essays in Latin on the divine right of kings, came to Juniata as part of a huge collection amassed by the Anabaptist collector Abraham Cassel (1820-1908). A note, apparently written by Cassel himself, on the inside cover states the book is bound in human skin.

Before the shivers of disgust start, the practice of binding a book in human skin was, if not common practice, then let's say not unheard of in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

Just recently, Harvard University tested three volumes in its library holdings that were purported to be bound in human skin and found that only one, an obscure meditation on the soul and life after death, by French writer Arsene Houssaye, is actually bound in human skin.

The two others turned out to be bound in sheepskin. Juniata's library decided to test its own book to see what the binding was made of.

"The book has sort of taken on the status of an urban legend. Every semester, students come in and want to see it -- they're not that interested in the other books in the library's archives."
Jacob Gordon, instructional technology and reference librarian.

Richard Hark, professor of chemistry at Juniata, contacted Daniel Kirby, at Harvard's Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, to see how they had tested the books. Hark wanted to prove once and for all the provenance of the library's most celebrated book.

"The book has sort of taken on the status of an urban legend," says Jacob Gordon, Juniata's instructional technology and reference librarian. "Every semester, students come in and want to see it -- they're not that interested in the other books in the library's archives."

Hark asked Harvard's Kirby if he was interested in testing Juniata's book and the renowned lab agreed to test the tome. In May 2014, Hark, Mumford and reference librarian Gordon gathered with Regina Lamendella, assistant professor of biology, to take samples from the book's binding. The four confirmed under a microscope the binding was some type of skin cell, then removed about 17 small samples from the inside cover of the antique book and shipped them off to Harvard for analysis using a technique called peptide mass fingerprinting.

The results are in and, somewhat sheepishly, Juniata found that its most hyped historical possession is indeed bound in sheepskin.

The practice of binding a book in human skin is known as "anthropodermic bibliopegy" and the practice started around the 16th century and ended near the turn of the 20th century. Typically, a person might request that his or her skin be bound in the form of a book to be remembered by relatives or loved ones. Another example is that the skin of criminals was used to bind books that detailed their crimes or their trials.

One of the most well-known books bound in human skin is a pocket book, used to store notes and money, from the infamous murderer William Burke, who, with partner William Hare, murdered about 15 people in Scotland to provide dissection corpses for the physician Robert Knox. According to BBC magazine, the book is in the library of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh.

Reference librarian Gordon, perhaps inspired to put more of Juniata's skin in the game, has started to collate a database of libraries and other institutions that have listed anthropodermic books in their collections. So far he has identified nine libraries or other institutions with similar books. Juniata does not even qualify as a major player in this field in its own state. The Mutter Museum, a museum of medical oddities in Philadelphia, has six books bound in human skin.

"There is always quite a bizarre story associated with each book I come across," Gordon says. This coming 2014-2015 academic year, Hark hopes to reach out to the contact list Gordon has assembled to encourage each institution to test their books.

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.