Skin Deep

Published Oct 31, 2023

Happy Halloween! Jess talks with UCLA librarian Megan Rosenbloom about the spooky science of uncovering what makes some old books extra rare.

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Today’s episode is our Halloween offering, so sensitive listeners should note that there is discussion of the treatment of bodies after death. SOUND: This Is Halloween Instrumental In 2018, I circumnavigated Iceland with author Margaret Atwood for a documentary film about her life. My job was to provide volcano expertise, and in return I received a uniquely memorable experience and an inadvertent education. During one dinner on the ship I mentioned the infamous phallus museum in Reykjavik. Our Icelandic expert Svanur asked if I’d heard of Nábrók. I had not, and the conversation that followed was one of the strangest I’ve ever had. Necropants, whose Icelandic name translates to “corpse britches,” are said to be pants made from the skin of a dead man.

The short version is that if a sorcerer wants a limitless supply of cash, they can get a friend to agree to allow the sorcerer to skin them post-mortem. The friend has to die of natural causes, and a burial has to take place before the sorcerer can dig the body up and start the trouser-making process.

Once the necropants are on, the sorcerer has to steal one coin from a poor widow and insert it into the scrotum of the pants together with the Icelandic symbol for necropants. If all goes to plan, a never-ending supply of money sourced from the necro-scrotum follows. And yes, the sorcerer has to wear the pants forever.

Fortunately, there’s no evidence necropants ever existed in the real world. When it comes to odd uses of dead bodies, however, sometimes the truth is much, much, stranger than fiction.

I’m your host Jess Phoenix, and this is science.

SOUND: Music (This Is Halloween)

Jess: I'm joined today by UCLA Collection Strategies Librarian, and, author of the book "Dark Archives," Megan Rosenbloom. You may wonder why I am speaking with Megan, since this is a show about science, usually. So, just telling you that Megan is an expert in anthropodermic bibli... say it for me? Bibli?

Megan: Bibliopegy.

Jess: Bibliopegy. Anthropodermic bibliopegy. I love learning words. She's an expert on that. Does that help? Probably not, because if you're like me, these are new words to you. So, if we're gonna put it bluntly, Megan is an expert on something that sounds like the premise of a horror film, books bound in human skin. Just let that sink in for a minute. So, I wanted to ask you if you could start off by just giving our listeners a bit of background about yourself, and then, what drew you to this very unique subject?

Megan: Thanks. Yeah. Thanks for having me, Jess. So, I started off as a journalist.

Jess: Cool.

Megan: And I worked for NPR stations, and alt weeklies and stuff. And I lived in Philadelphia. I knew all the cool institutions, including this one called The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, which is a museum of medical pathology. You know, what some people would call oddities. I don't really call it that, but, you know, unusual bodies.

Jess: Right, right.

Megan: So, it is a beautiful, 19th-century wood-and-brass museum, full of really strange body parts. It is a place that is not for everyone, and extremely for some people, if you're the science-curious type, you know, because initially, you know, it's open to the public, but initially, it existed to train doctors, right?

Jess: Oh, cool.

Megan: Because you probably wouldn't come across some of these more unusual diseases and manifestations in your regular practice, so this was the way for them to share information of, you know, "this is what happens when your colon gets as big as a small car." And I was on a visit to the Mütter, just, you know, going past all the different things that I always noticed there, and I saw this case with these very boring-looking leather books, just, like, plain, brown, nothing books, right, with their covers closed. There was no jewels, and, you know, embroidery and all that. And I was just like, "What…why is this like this? Like, you know? So, then I looked at the little caption, and it said that these are books, and a wallet, bound in human skin, made by doctors in the 19th century. And's, like, this unassuming little marker, that, all of a sudden, that very boring-looking book was not only not so boring, but incredibly upsetting, in a certain way...

Jess: Yeah.

Megan: ...where, you know, I'm in a room full of dead people, and this is the creepiest thing in there.

Jess: Right, right. Because it's so unexpected.

Megan: It just looks so unassuming, you literally could not tell the difference between that book and another contemporary book on the shelf. But it has this, like, very dark secret.

Jess: Wow.

Megan: But then, going through library school, starting to do my own research, traveling around doing research at other libraries, I would just casually ask these libraries, you know, "Oh, do you have...?" And there are all these, like, weird rumors about different books, and around that time, I just happened to go through, go to Harvard, and around that area, at the time right after, this was in, I think 2015, right after, they had employed a chemist to test their three alleged human skin books, and that news had just broke, and it was really huge all over library land. And so...and that was another one where I was like, "Oh, wait. There were, like, three..."

Jess: Three, yeah.

Megan: "...alleged at Harvard?" And I say "alleged" because only one of them was real, right?

Jess: Okay.

Megan: So, then, I got to talk to that chemist, we started comparing notes, and then this sort of, you know, Avengers team started forming up people who just made it their business to sort of, "How many are there in libraries and museums? Can we find this out for real, once and for all?" Because think about it. At Harvard, there were three books that were being treated, this entire time, like they were human skin, but two of them were not. So, to me, it was one thing to be interested in something old and dark and mysterious, and it was quite another thing to suddenly be able to apply a cheap, easy scientific test to find out for real for the first time, and that confluence was the thing that made me go down the path.

Jess: I wanna sort of set the stage, because, of course, I looked a bunch of this stuff up, to prepare to come talk to you, so I was wondering if you could tell us about Mary Lynch.

Megan: Okay. Yeah. So, poor Mary Lynch. She was a Philadelphian, young Irish immigrant, and she was sick in the hospital. And then her family would come visit her, and bring her, like, sandwiches and things like that. And, which sounds nice and fine, except they didn't know that if there were little white things in the pork in a sandwich, it might be that that could cause trichinosis, and if you were already sick, then poor Mary got trichinosis, that they, you know, were only just figuring out that you can transfer trichinosis from a pig to a human by eating. So, poor Mary dies, and a young doctor, we would now probably refer to him as, like, a resident, you know, very early in his career, does her autopsy, and finds all the trichinosis, you know, and puts two and two together between the meat and, you know, all that. And his name was John Stockton Hough. And John Stockton Hough then, you know, while he was doing the autopsy, you know, usually if you did an autopsy on someone, you know, there was a lot of byproduct, and it went basically in the garbage. So, then, they, he saved a piece of her skin, or multiple pieces of her it tanned, saved it for years, and eventually bound, like, three books.

Jess: What, that is so bizarre.

Megan: It is. It is.

Jess: And did Mary's family know about that?

Megan: So, I doubt it. But also, if you think about their relative stations in society, you know, eventually, people use, you know, doing, you know, doctors dissecting bodies for anatomical learning, there was this huge uptick in this, because of that whole clinical medicine model of, you know, we should learn...we should do this scientifically. It's not just pass down knowledge. We're exploring at open cadaver, we're seeing lots of patients in a hospital, and gaining knowledge that way, instead of just having a few people that you deal with. And all those things generally sound good. Right? Those are generally good things...

Jess: Yes.

Megan: ...but when you're suddenly seeing a ton of patients all the time, and you have this busy clinical environment, and this focus on the dead body, and interaction with it, if you don't kind of check in with your humanity, or if your education does not include, like, how important it is to keep checking in with the humanity of the people that you're seeing...

Jess: Ethics. We need ethics.

Megan: Yes. This depersonalization process can happen, where you're just seeing this as a body...

Jess: Not a human.

Megan: ...and, "This is going in the trash anyway, and I'm a book collector, and I can save a couple pieces, because it would have gone in the trash anyway, and then bind some of my favorite books in the works of the history medicine, and then those books are extra special and rare," right? And that's what John Stockton Hough did. Like, multiple times. There are three...three of their five confirmed human skin books, which is the largest collection proven in the world. That wallet I mentioned earlier, by the way, was not real, so...

Jess: Okay. Yeah.

Megan: But three of them were made with Mary Lynch's skin. And the only reason we know who she was was because a former librarian there, named Beth Lander, had done some sleuthing in the hospital record books and put it all together, because Stockton Hough, unlike most of the other human skin book creators, didn't just say, inside the book, "This is bound in human skin," but said, "in the skin of ML."

Jess: Oh. Specifically.

Megan: Yeah. It was, like, "Mary L," or "ML," or something like that, but he gave us initials, and then Beth was able to go into the hospital records, match everything up, and be able to, like, give a positive ID to this woman, who otherwise we would never have known, right? So, the power of the historical archive, and a, you know, plucky librarian, wanting to find out. But most of the people that, you know, these books were made out of, we don't know who they were. Usually the only thing that really tips anybody off was someone, at some point, wrote a note inside that said it was bound in human skin. However, of, like, my project of the books we've tested, quite a number of them had those notes, and then were not.

Jess: They were not. Okay. So, there's a bit of blurring between truth and fiction. And so, let's get into the science side of it. So, what are the scientific tools that you and the folks on the project were using to determine if something's human skin or other types of leather?

Megan: Yeah. So, Daniel Kirby was the chemist who, he, you know, used to work for IBM. He's a chemist who was doing cultural heritage objects for the Peabody Museum at Harvard, and then the folks in preservation at Harvard's libraries, they were talking together, and they said, "Hey, do you think that this test that you're doing on native artifacts, to find out, is this a seal or, you know, what is this kayak made out of, etc...

Jess: Oh, yeah.

Megan: It's really interesting work. Like, do you think this will work on these books? So, he came up with how they would, you know, test these objects, and it was really pretty brilliant, because leather is, like, really, a very specific material. Leather goes through this really chemically corrosive...not corrosive, but, like, a very intense process, chemically, in order to make it more stable. And part of what happens during that is that the DNA, like, gets destroyed, right?

Jess: Okay. So, there's no DNA that you can work with.

Megan: So, then, what he did was, what lasts, though, what persists, are the proteins.

Jess: Okay.

Megan: So, this is a proteomics thing. And you can't get very precise, but you can do peptide mass fingerprinting, and use a, you know, mass spectrometer. It's a pretty simple little desktop machine, and it costs almost nothing to use. And it's technically destructive, which some places are just like, "No destruction of any artifacts," because you have to take something that's teeny, teeny, tiny, if you can see it with your eye, it's plenty big, sample, off of a leather binding, and you dissolve it in trypsin, and then you run it through this machine, and what you get back looks like a kind of line graph, and that corresponds with the animal family, basically. And then you compare it to a library of other samples, and say, "That is a sheep. That is a..." You know, the Bovidae family is, they have one marker that differentiates far enough back in evolutionary time that makes it so you can say, "That's a deer. That's a sheep. That's a goat. They're the same family, but they differentiated long enough ago...

Jess: That you can see the separation.

Megan: The Hominidae family, that's your great apes, we're too close to our relatives there. So, if it comes up Hominidae, it is probably a human and the science, taken together with the things you know about the artifact, the reason why it existed in the, why we tested in the first place, because of some person putting a note in, pretty solid, right?

Jess: Yes. It matches up. Yeah.

Megan: Yeah. But we can't tell biological sex from that test, we can't tell race from that test.

Jess: But, so, we can't tell from the test that you were using, with the peptides, you couldn't say, "This person is female Caucasian," you know, "in her early 30s." That doesn't work. Okay.

Megan: Yeah. Yeah. So, any individual, like, identifiers would have to come from something about the book, those things on the artifact.

Jess: Wow. This is cool, because it really is the intersection of history, and journalism, and investigative work, and science, and using this technology. And then there definitely are moral and ethical questions that are raised.

Megan: Absolutely. Yeah.

Jess: How many books do you suspect are out there that might be bound in human skin?

Megan: Yeah, that's a great question, and there are kind of, like, a number of levels there, right. I think people love books just as much as they ever did, but that physicality of having a leather-bound book, now, it's almost, like, a really specialized art kind of situation. So, but, there are still private collectors out there. And so, the Anthropodermic Book Project, we focused that project on public libraries and museums. So, academic, whatever kind of libraries, archives, museums, publicly held. And in that, we had identified 50 alleged books that we were able to point, like, that specific book. Of those 50, we tested 31, which is not bad. And of that, 18 of them were real human skin, and 13 were other animals.

Jess: Wow. Okay, so, that's actually a higher percentage that were what they were purported to be than weren't.

Megan: Right.

Jess: So, there, this was, I won't call it common, but it also isn't so rare as to only find one or two examples.

Megan: Right. So, it wasn't some Hannibal Lecter, you know, creepy doctor in his basement thing, and these were, you know, the doctors we can associate with them were plenty well-respected in their fields. It was ubiquitous enough that if you were in that social circle in the West, you probably knew someone or heard of someone who had such a thing. Even if you didn't agree with them doing it, you probably were aware that people did it.

Jess: What do you think should be done with these books? Should there be a uniform sort of way of handling them, or is it a case-by-case kind of thing, or... What is your opinion on that?

Megan: You know, as someone who works in a cultural heritage institution, and who studies these things, I think it is so important... Like, having best practices and guidelines and stuff is great. You know, museums have more experience dealing with human remains, but most libraries do not have experience dealing with human remains in any way. I really caution a broad-brush approach to things that come out of a variety of circumstances. I also think that evidence of atrocities is evidence. We can't change what happened to make a thing, but we can use the very memorable existence of that object to give, like, lasting educational experiences. And, I mean, if some of those books that were written in got, you know, buried or thrown away before 2015...

Jess: When you started this.

Megan: ...books that were just older books, that were not human would have gotten destroyed for no good reason. And, yeah, we're doing science and learning from things, right? I feel like we're using this information for good.

Jess: Right.

Megan: Nobody's, like, capitalizing off of the existence of these things or anything. But it's a really palpable story about medical ethics, about cultural institutions and their responsibilities, about using old things for new science, and all of those things, I think, are really interesting and important. They would not exist if they were, if the books were destroyed.

Jess: Right.

Megan: So, I come down on the, let's keep it. Now, I would completely change my tune if there was, say, a specifically identified person, an identifiable family member, the family says, "Hey, you know...they wouldn't have liked this. I want this." Whatever. So, like, that's why this is very different from, like, a Henrietta Lacks situation.

Jess: Right, where she has living relatives who know. Yeah.

Megan: Yeah. And they had strong opinions about all of it, right?

Jess: Yes, yes.

Megan: And that, the way things were handled with that, eventually, comes out very differently, because of all that context, right? Part of what I explore in the, sort of towards the end of the book, is, what would something like this look like in our modern age of, like, consent is everything. So, we are so, rightly, like, entrenched in this idea of consent that we, it's hard to imagine a time when bodily consent was not a concept, you know?

Jess: Right. [crosstalk 00:54:20] We have to look at things with the gaze that we currently have.

Megan: Right.

Jess: And it does change the equation a little bit when, you know, if you put it into context.

Megan: This is all us looking back a couple hundred years, and putting that on the people of the time. I'm not saying that's not, like, you know, a relevant conversation, but to make decisions based off of, you know, ideals that didn't exist back then is kind of, you know, a hard thing to do. So, what would it look like today? Right? What would that look like? And the closest thing I could find was tattoo preservation. So, there's been a lot of new methods of preserving tattoos, right? These, like, secret, proprietary methods of, you know, preserving tattoos. Now, people preserve tattoos as long as they've done, you know, anything else. They have preserved tattoos at the Mütter. They have preserved tattoos at the Wellcome in London, because doctors would find them on people, and save them, right? So, they were taken in a context of a doctor taking from a dead body. Now, different scenario, where the person whose tattoo they are may decide that they want to keep this after they die, and it is all consensual. Nobody is going to forcibly take someone's tattoo from them. And when you talk to tattoo people, which I did quite a bit for this...

Jess: Oh, I bet.

Megan: ...the idea of them preserving their tattoo is not gross at all, for most... They're like, "Oh, yeah. I get that. I get why you would wanna do that."

Jess: Yeah. It's art.

Megan: Right. And I think part of that is consent, though. It's about the consent. So, I don't think a lot of people... You may not personally want your dead uncle's tattoo. Like, you are leaving it for someone who's still alive, and...

Jess: You hope they want it.

Megan: Yeah. You hope they want it, but, much like everything that people leave behind, whether your family actually wants that thing or not is another question. Any collection, any whatever. But you're, you know, people feel, like, way more comfortable with the notion of it.

Jess: Mm-hmm. Because someone has agency.

Megan: Right. However, the laws are way slower...

Jess: Of course.

Megan: ...about, like, getting up to where people feel like, "If I consent to it, anything should be okay."

Jess: Yes.

Megan: The laws are like, "No. Not actually." And all of the laws in different places are different. So when you were talking about, you know, human remains and stuff, like, what even constitutes a human remain, and what kinds of human remains, like, apply, what, like, what laws apply to certain kinds of human remains, are different in different places. So, like, was there an application of skill? Like, is in an artifact that was made with human hair?

Jess: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Megan: Or, like, teeth. Or blood. You know, something written in blood. Is that a human remain?

Jess: And artists have made things with their own blood for a long time. That's not new.

Megan: Yeah. Andy Warhol did, like, you know, paintings with, like, pee. Is that a human remain? And so, the lines there are, like, really dependent, and also, how many laws there are, like, there's a whole human tissue act in England, that's, like, very explicit. And then, and how old the human remains are taken into effect. And all of these things. And then, in Scotland, it's even more strict. In Paris, or in France, it's extremely strict. In the U.S., it's state-based. There's almost no... The only, like, national law having to do with human remains is NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Repatriation Act. And so, that is...and that came about in the '90s, right? And so, that is the only national law about dead bodies and dead body parts. Everything else is state-based, and they can be really, really vague. So...

Jess: Okay. I had no... Like, something you don't think about a lot when you're alive, unless you're dealing with someone who may be dying. Then it comes up. But yeah, I mean, and I know there've been a lot of new thoughts about how we dispose of remains, with all that...we have new techniques available. There's green burials. There's getting made into a diamond. There's becoming a tree. We have a lot of choices now that we didn't used to have, and we have a final question, and I ask everybody on the podcast. We are the Union of Concerned Scientists. So, Megan, why are you concerned?

Megan: Oh, boy. Oh, gosh, I'm so concerned. I'm so concerned about so many things. Part of my answer before, about people wanting to, with good intention, apply things too broadly, without considering context or history, that concerns me. Because decisions get made that are irrevocable. And I don't like the idea that people, you know... Of course we make decisions the best that we can, with the information we're given, but I think we should be really, really careful about, say, like, destruction of things if we are not, you know... Like, how sure are we about our firm stance in the right, forever, about this thing? You know? That is a really, really hard thing to know. So, like, exercising caution, I think, is really important when it comes to that. So, specifically, with my work in libraries, and, you know, that would be something that concerns me. Disinformation and misinformation, as a librarian, is extremely concerning.

Jess: Yeah. I'd say that's fair. And then, one last little question. I was gonna end with that, but it made me remember something. So, have you actually handled the books yourself?

Megan: Oh, yeah. I've held dozens of...yeah.

Jess: What was it like the first time that you got to hold one of them...that you knew it was from human skin?

Megan: Well, so, there was one time that's funny, where I was at a rare book cataloging course at UC Berkeley. And we had, somehow skin books had come up in conversation, very casually, and then, the next day, you know, you would have a cradle, you know, in front of you, and a book, and then you would be learning how to, like, you know, describe it. And I picked it up, and I was, like, flipping through it to see what it was, and then my professor was like, "Oh, hey, so, that's, like, that human skin book that I mentioned we had..." and it was already in my hand. And I was like...

Jess: Yeah.

Megan: You know, I was kind of like, [vocalization 01:03:10] Okay, I'm holding this thing. And there was no preparation.

Jess: Wow. But just in it, like, "this is happening."

Megan: Yeah, just, "this is happening," right away. And it's like, I wasn't gonna drop it or anything, but it was just kind of this, like, moment. Turns out we tested it later and, it was horse.

Jess: Oh.

Megan: In general, you know, I go to the library, I pick these out, and they are really normal.

Jess: Okay. Surprisingly normal?

Megan: They're so normal. And you know what you're touching, but other people don't. To me, it is creepier that they're not creepy-looking, that they're normal.

Jess: They blend in. They're just like us.

Megan: Yeah, exactly. Like, that's way creepier to me. So I always, like, thought... But, you know, I take time with them. I treat them with respect. I, like, you know, try to get all the information I can out of the book and everything, just like you would with any other book you were researching with. But there is this sort of, like, back-of-your mind feeling.

Jess: I wanna send people where they can read what you've done, and how they can find you to learn more. So, I know the short title of your book is "Dark Archives," by Megan Rosenbloom. Can you give us the full title?

Megan: "A Librarian's Investigation Into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin."

I’d like to say a big thank you to Megan Rosenbloom for infusing our science with a touch of spooky. Thanks to Rich Hayes and Omari Spears for production help, and to Anthony Eyring for our multimedia magic. Happy Halloween, science sorcerers!