Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Book Bound in Human Skin?

When you are a public historian, the public finds you.  They bring you their questions and sometimes their special objects. Your aunt wants you to authenticate that genuine copy of the Magna Carta she found at a garage sale, a local teacher carries some historic letters from the community, a retired genealogist wants you confirm her findings that she is in fact the lost Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia. I usually enjoy these often quirky and charming encounters.

Nothing, however, prepared me for the woman who came to my office a couple of years ago with a book to examine. As she told what is was I quickly realized that I needed to document the encounter, and with her permission I recorded a video:


Yikes! A book bound in human skin? What should I do?

I decided that my responsibilities were 1) determine the authenticity of the story about this book, in a manner that is respectful of native beliefs and culture, and 2) if it did turn out to be what it was said to be, to see it returned to the tribal descendants of the individual. The owner of the book--a really nice and ethical person--was willing to turn it over to a tribal group, if that is what it was, but first she wanted to know for certain.

My first discovery was that binding books with human skin really is a thing. The term is Anthropodermic bibliopegy. Here is a good blog post with some dramatic examples.Harvard even has a few However, there seemed to be only a few examples of the practice in America, or anywhere in the nineteenth century.

John Walton's biography is bound
in John Walton. How many
of us can boast as much?
Another route to discovering the truth might be investigate this General George B. Dandy. Sounds like a joke name, right? No, General Dandy was a real historical figure, who had a long career in the frontier army and participated in numerous engagements with American Indians, including the Box Wagon skirmish, where around 60 Indians were killed. That part checked out.

Was it common for nineteenth-century Americans to mutilate the bodies of slain Indians? Unfortunately, it was. I won't try to compile a list, but nearly every 19th-century victory battle between whites and natives ended with the winners collecting bloody souvenirs from the corpses of their enemies. Some native warriors collected scalps from the dead. American soldiers too collected scalps, but also were known to take fingers, genitals (both male and female) and strips of skin. There are literally hundreds of cases of this behavior, throughout the nineteenth century and for that matter the twentieth.

How about the provenance of the book? The signature of Dandy appeared genuine and matched other signatures by him on official documents. The book, Army Life on the Pacific by Lawrence Kip is a well-know volume which describes the Indian Wars of 1858. Dandy was a fellow officer with Kip in these campaigns and would likely have bought a copy of the book when it was published in 1959. The marginalia in the book appeared to be by someone who took part in the events described. And Glenn Adams, the previous owner, was a pretty famous person in regional history. He ran a tiny publishing company, Ye Galleon Press, in Fairfield Washington from 1939 until 2003 (!), publishing about 600 titles, mostly reprints of obscure books of regional history. It is hard to believe that he would have scammed his hired help with a phony story about a book bound in human skin.

I did not like where this was heading.

Artist's rendering of the Wagon Box Fight
My campus is also home to a state crime lab, as well as a fine biology department. My first thought was that the book should be tested. In a series of phone conversations I learned that any testing would require sampling--cutting out a small section of the binding for analysis. I did not feel like it was right to do this without talking to the tribe first--and I did not want to even begin what might be a painful conversation for them without being a little more certain.

Finally, I brought in the big guns--I called the Smithsonian, and followed up with an email that included both a link to the video and some high definition scans of the book's bindings. It took a while but someone did get back to me. I am removing a few names as this was a private email, but here is the gist of the answer:

Dear Mr. Cebula, 

I have received several requests from other people here at the museum to review your inquiry concerning a book purported to be made of human skin. 

First, let me say that if you feel that this needs to be fully investigated, some destructive sampling will HAVE to be done, such as chemical test, or histological study. From the photographs and the video I saw, there are several locations on the book that a small sample could be removed for such analysis. 

I have worked with many other investigations concerning the use of human skin and organs as coverings or displays and in the rough visualization from the pictures and the video, the thickness and the overall texture of the 'hide/skin' is not obviously consistent with human skin that I have encountered. 

I have studied purported skin lamp shades from WWII, human and non-human shrunken heads from S America, hair lockets and scalps for N & S America, mummified and frozen bodies from around the world, and I don't feel that the material on that book is consistent with human tissue. 

I would also feel that if this was human skin that a fine well executed book-binding would not have been done. This book is bound like a commercial binding; inside papering is well attached, folded papering and cover endings and spine well done. I am of the opinion that if someone were adorning their book with human skin that they took off of a killed NA Indian for a "trophy" it would have not been, even at that time, a accepted norm to do and I believe that an established and/or good bookbinder would not have agreed to have done this work. Thus my opinion is that this would not been the skin of a human. 

So with al that said, I again suggest that if you believe there is substantial proof (other that hearsay that it is covered with human skin) and you feel this need to be clarified, then a sample of the tissue will need to be acquired and chemical / histological testing will be the only way to positively confirm / deny this identification. 

If I can follow from my experience from the reported objects made from human skin or flesh by the Nazis, in all but one instance, the stories were just that...... Sincerely,

This expert opinion is really convincing to my mind, particularly the part about the professional, mass-market quality of the binding, and the fact that it does not look "consistent with human tissue" to a scholar who has seen his share of human skin. I solicited a second opinion for a medical museum on the east coast, and their answer was the same. This book is NOT bound in human skin.

I shared the correspondence with the owner of the volume. She seemed something between disappointed and relieved at the findings. And really, wouldn't you be? Me, I was glad that this had turned out to be a bookselling misunderstanding rather than a war crime. I think the simplest explanation is that the kindly Mr. Adams was bamboozled by a book dealer, many years ago.

2 comments:

Zach Wnek said...

Look out, its Dr. Cebula investigative historian! Great article and great follow up to investigate this matter. As a curator I also am tasked with similar type public inquiries, the answers and the process to get the answers can be very interesting.

Larry Cebula said...

In this post I almost referenced the Pawn Stars tag line--You never know what is going to walk through that door.