THE MACABRE: Human skin
[WARNING: Lest the title above not be enough, be aware that what follows is often graphic, sometimes even horrifying, and very much NOT the kind of thing everyone wants to read.
Now that I've got the interest of our teen readers....]
The item this week about a 300 year old volume wrapped in human skin coincided nicely with my visit to Los Angeles' Natural History Museum to see some of the "Bog People": (though I was sorry not to see the other-worldly Tolland Man.) A little research on the Web uncovered the Wikipedia's article on "Anthropodermic bibliopegy":
Surviving historical examples of this technique include anatomy texts bound with the skin of dissected cadavers, volumes created as a bequest and bound with the skin of the testator, and copies of judicial proceedings bound in the skin of the murderer convicted in those proceedings. The libraries of many Ivy League universities include one or more samples of anthropodermic bibliopegy. The rare book collection at the Langdell Law Library at Harvard University holds a book, Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias Hispaniae, a treaty of Spanish law. A faint inscription on the last page of the books states: * 'The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my deare friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King btesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace." (The Wavuma are believed to be an African tribe from the region currently known as Zimbabwe.)'
It turns out too that Harvard Law School's the Record has an extensive article on the subject: "Books Bound in Human Skin; Lampshade Myth? - Deviant Behavior" by Dan Alban. A book held by the Boston Atheneum is described here: "The human-skin book" and shown (with a link to its contents) on the Atheneum's own site: Narrative of the life of James Allen, alias George Walton, alias Jonas Pierce, alias James H. York, alias Burley Grove, the highwayman. Being his death-bed confession, to the warden of the Massachusetts state prison.) There's even a poem on the subject: "This Book in Human Skin".) Otherwise it turns out the Intermediare des Chercheurs discussed this subject for decades, from its second issue on. The initial subject quickly divides into several others, as follows:
And that's without addressing the practice of collecting tatoos on human skin (a large subject in itself.) One BIG warning in reading the following: much of this material is from the nineteenth century, when wounds from the Revolution were still fresh (or carefully nourished) on each side. While truly hideous acts have been fairly documented under the Revolution, even some serious historians of this period were probably tempted to darken the balance sheet of the Revolutionaries wherever they could. Some of what follows - barring further confirmation - may be as much a record of ideas of the time as it is of any historical reality.
- BOOKS (IN AND ON)
An article in the Magasin Pittoreseque entitled "Singular Bindings" discusses not only bindings in human skin, but in that of numerous exotic animals, not to mention novelties such as musical bindings (a kind of abbreviated music box) (No 69 - 1901 (71-72). (The article itself is largely drawn from items in the Intermediaire.): "Who has not heard of bindings in human skin? Numerous examples of these bindings exist and human skin provides... [says a specialized leather review] 'an excellent leather, a leather that is quite solid, thick and grained' ". (Another item in the Intermediaire quotes a contrary opinion: "the skin is not attractive as a binding, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to completely degrease it." The writer adds "these differences in opinion surely arise from the condition of those who have provided the skin. Only the skin of bodies without illness, healthy and robust, gives good results." (1910-2 (270))) The article then cites an English anatomy text bound in human skin by Doctor Antoine Askew (d. 1773) "so that the outside of the work matched the interior" and, also in England, two volumes covered with the skin of Mary Ratman, "a Yorkshire witch, executed for murder in the first years of the 19th century". A Cincinnati businessman owned two works by Sterne, one, the "Sentimental Journey", bound in a black woman's skin and the other, "Tristram Shandy", in that of "a young Chinese woman" (meaning only that the skin appeared Asian?). In France, a 13th century bible owned by the Sorbonne was said to be bound in human skin.
The most frequently cited volume from the Revolutionary period was sold at auction in 1864 : "No. 409. Constitution of the French Republic, Dijon. Causse, year II (1793), 1 vol in-18, pap. vel., bound in human skin."(IC 1869 (181)) With it were a handwritten note and a poster printed on blue paper, both affirming that it was bound in human skin. The poster was produced by Galetti, a journalist who'd been accused by the Committee of Public Safety of revealing [sic] the existence of tanneries of human skin. A subscriber to his paper found this volume, which was said to prove Galetti's claim. The volume then went for 226 francs (IC 1869 (323)). The volume was later determined to be that of a woman. When it was sold again in 1872, the Figaro wrote of how people complained about inflation, then went on: "There is something, nonetheless, whose value has not increased, that is human skin." The paper then says that, the second time around, this volume brought in no more than 185 francs. "Such is our worth!" ("Ce que c'est de nous!") (1913 (264)). A contributor who had seen a 1793 copy of the Constitution in Lyons at the Palais des Arts said "this binding does not show any difference with the ordinary dark tint of the faun color." (1882 (446)). For those who want to judge for themselves, there is apparently a copy at the Carnavalet Museum: "Just why the "Constitution de la Republique Fran?aise" should have been so covered is a mystery, yet several copies are known, one of which is at present in the Museum Carnavalet at Paris." The Courier of the Somme is cited (without a date) as saying that a 1765 edition of the Encyclopedia was bound this way in 1793: "This kind of binding was widely used: there were factories where human skin was tanned absolutely like the leather of cattle or horses, and handsome volumes were made from it which sold at insane prices." The library of Macon possessed a copy of L'Essai sur l'electricite des corps by Abbe Nollet (1746) which, according to an old note, was bound with human skin. This skin was said to be "without grain,... extraordinarily fine and lightly soapy to the touch." (1910-2 (771)) A version of Decretales, then (1869) held by the Imperial Library (now the BNF), was said by a librarian of the Revolutionary period to be written on human skin (1869 (396)).
A Paris volume of Hans Holblein's Danse Macabre is also said to have "once" been bound this way (1886 (202)). The Magasin article also cites a copy of Suard's Opuscules Philosophiques from the library of a Monsieur de Musset (possibly the poet's father) said to be bound in human skin, which bore a note that it had been bound in 1796 for 20 france by "Derrome". (In 1881, says the Intermediaire, the Arrigoni bookstore (Milan?) offered this work for 200 francs (1882 (394)))).
Among the 19th century examples in that article it is hard to resist mentioning the gift supposedly made to Camille Flammarion by a countess whose shoulders he had admired - the skin from the shoulders, which he used to bind a copy of Terre et Ciel.
A 1793 copy of L'Almanach des Prisons was apparently bound later in the skin of a childhood friend of a Reverdin, a Geneva surgeon. This friend left him both his fortune and his skin. Reverdin took a hand's width of skin from the chest and tired unsuccessfully to get it tanned in Geneva. Finally he got it done in Annecy "where he was made to pay for this simple task an exorbitant price, on the rather bizarre pretext that the workers were disgusted." As was Reverdin, when he received the piece of leather, "dyed black, dulled, oily and, surprisingly for a piece of skin from the chest, very thick..." He gave it to Marcellin Pellet, a French diplomat and scholar of the Revolution, who used it to bind the volume in question. (IC 1912-2 (125-126))
It would not be surprising to find Sade's works bound this way and one writer in the Intermediare had seen such a volume in a bookstore on the rue de Seine, with a note by the binder Lortic that it was bound in human skin. The binder claimed not only that it was the "untinted" skin of a woman, but that he knew the woman's name. However, the skin, says the writer, looked a great deal like pigskin. (1910-2 (96-97)
The rather grisly question of human skin being made into wearable items arose before the Revolution; the Encyclopedia's article on "Human Skin" (Vol. XII) not only explains in detail how to tan it, but goes on to say: "M. Sue, a Paris surgeon, gave the king's Cabinet a pair of slippers made of human skin." Such mentions become less neutral with writing on the Revolution.
An eyewitness from Angers, 13 or 14 and a shepherd at the time of these events, is quoted in the Intermediaire on the treatment of some who were shot by the republican army in the Vendee: "They were skinned at the midpoint of the body, because the skin was cut below the belt, then along the thighs until the ankle... so that, after its removal, the pants were partly formed; all that remained to do was to tan and to sew." Cretineau-Joly (Histoire de la Vendee Militaire) is quoted as saying that the republican general Beysier was the first to wear this "awful trophy", but that the fashion caught on there and in Nantes (1881 (745-746)). Another item cites three different official accounts from Anjou telling how Pequel, an army surgeon, flayed several Vendeeans who had been shot at Ponts-de-Ce and then tried to force a local tanner to prepare them. He and others refused but someone - apparently under constraint - finally did so. The report of the Popular Society of Angers to the Convention makes it clear that this was done unofficially: "These cannibals have pushed barbarity to the point of choosing, among these poor people, a hundred of the best looking, who were skinned and their skins tanned! Men who called themselves patriots dressed themselves in this awful garment!" (1910-2 (156))
More severe official sanctions were delivered elsewhere, as witnessed by this List of Citizens arrested by the Commission of Haut-Rhin: "Morel, surgeon, for having skinned a guillotined person to make himself pants, the tanner who tanned the skin and the tailor who kept it in his shop, showing it to all comers." (1913 (722)) In some cases, erotic or even romantic motivations are cited.
One of the more colorful (and so dubious) stories, from J. B. Harmand de la Meuse's Anecdotes relatives a quelques personnes et a plusieurs evenements remarquables de la Revolution concerns Saint-Just: "A young woman, tall and shapely, refused Saint-Just's advances; he had her taken to the guillotine. After the execution he wanted to be shown the cadaver and to have the skin removed... [which] he had prepared by an oil tanner and wore it as breeches. I have this revolting fact from the very person who was charged with these preparations and who 'satisfied the Monster'. " He goes to say that the man told him the story in his cabinet in the presence of two other people. Harmand says that others followed Saint-Just's example and even sold the resulting products. He adds that one man used the same means to preserve a departed lover. He also speaks of oil from cadavers that had been sold more recently (1818?) for use in enamellers' lamps. (76, cited in IC 1875 (720)) The Baron de Saint-Frusquin later adds: 'Saint-Just belonged to this cate gory of false philosophers out of which came the Marquis de Sade and other novelists... Saint-Just's order (if this order was carried out) constitutes a manner, as rare as it is superficial, of entering into possession of the desired person."(1875 (426)) (all of which sounds quite Freudian for 1875).
- THE TANNERY OF MEUDON
The question of whether a human tannery existed at Meudon or elsewhere has been debated over decades in the pages of the Intermediaire. The Goncourt's Histoire de la Societe Francaise pendant le Directoire is cited as quoting the first mention of the tannery of Meudon (1880 (580)). A revolutionary report dated August 14, 1793 is quoted as saying "Human skin is tanned at Meudon" and as discussing the relative merits of male and female skin. (1910-2 (156)) R. L. Jacob (the "Bibliophile Jacob", a frequent contributor) says: "these tanneries were active, it is an established fact, and the large poster, displayed in Paris in 1794 to denounce the fact, declares that the principal establishment of this type was in Meudon." He cites two different people who told him they had worn breeches of human skin themselves, one who stated that they were "very well tanned, very supple and very comfortable," and offers a long quote from Dusaulchoy de Bergemont's Mosaique histoirque, litteraire et politique, 1818 (I-146):
What people in Europe does not take as a fable the establishment of the tannery of human skin at Meudon? Nonetheless one remembers that a man came to the bar of the Convention to announce a new and simple procedure for procuring an abondance of leather; that the Committee of Public Saftey granted him the locale of the Chateau de Meudon, whose doors were carefully closed, and that finally several members of this committee were the first to wear boots made of human leather.
Jacob adds that Dusaulchoy's credibility is helped by the fact that he might have seen such boots himself.(IC 1873 (460-461)) However, an F. Bruand, responding in IC 1874 (37-38), says "this picturesque and ridiculous legend has been exploded [by] Louis Combes [in the] 'Amateur d'Autographes' of March 1, 1864" and says that the same poster offered as proof is reproduced and refuted in this work. A second writer adds "M. Combes' discussion is closely reasoned, and under his vigorous effort, the human skin supposedly tanned in the old parish of the joyous Rabelais cracks and rips."
A later writer (1881 (747)) also questions the account but says that the idea was in the spirit of Carrier's order to make lard from human bodies which was then sold at Nantes, and of Roland's suggestion to the Academy of Lyons that oil and phosphoric acid be extracted from the dead, as per an unadmiring note in Taine's "The French Revolution" (II, Ch. 4):
Roland is an administrative puppet and would-be orator, whose wife pulls the strings. There is an odd, dull streak in him, peculiarly his own. For example, in 1787 (Guillon de Montléon, "Histoire de la ville de Lyon, pendant la Révolution," 1.58), he proposes to utilize the dead, by converting them into oil and phosphoric acid.
Carlyle did not think much of the tale either:
The Abbe Montgaillard has shrewdness, decision, insight; abounds in anecdotes, strange facts and reports of facts: his book, being written in the form of Annals, is convenient for consulting. For the rest, he is acrid, exaggerated, occaionally altogether perverse; and, with his hastes and his hatreds, falls into the strangest hallucination; as, for example, when he coolly records that... D'Orleans Egalité had "a pair of man-skin breeches,"- leather breeches, of human skin, such as they did prepare in the tannery of Meudon, but too late for D'Orleans.
Thomas Carlyle, Critical and miscellaneous essays, Philadephia, 1852.(506)
Finally, here is a firsthand account of, not the tannery itself, but of the idea of it:
It was whispered that some [members of the Convention in a procession] had men's skins from the tannery of human leather established at Meudon.... I neither affirm nor contest this. But what I can state with confidence is that everybody then believed it. Despite the terror which then ruled, this was said more or less out loud; in Meudon above all no one doubted it and the inhabitants of this village pointed out, with a mysterious terror, the windows of the low room of the chateau where according to them this terrible operation took place... And why not? Do you think it was a great slander on many leaders of the revolutionary government to suppose them unscrupulous enough to make close-fitting pants with the skin of their victims?... Cannibals could have taken lessons in ferocity from those people.
George Duval, Souvenirs de la Terreur de 1788 a 1793, (Paris, 1842) (355).
- ENTIRE HUMAN SKINS
Some tanned human skins were displayed as-is. Pepys records this visit in his diary: "Then to Rochester, and there saw the Cathedrall, which is now fitting for use, and the organ then a-tuning. Then away thence, observing the great doors of the church, which, they say, was covered with the skins of the Danes," Pepys, April 10, 1661. A note to the above says:
Dart, in his "History of the Abbey Church of St. Peter's, Westminster," 1723 (vol. i., book ii., p. 64), relates a like tradition then preserved in reference to a door, one of three which closed off a chamber from the south transept--namely, a certain building once known as the Chapel of Henry VIII., and used as a "Revestry." This chamber, he states, "is inclosed with three doors, the inner cancellated, the middle, which is very thick, lined with skins like parchment, and driven full of nails. These skins, they by tradition tell us, were some skins of the Danes, tann'd and given here as a memorial of our delivery from them." Portions of this supposed human skin were examined under the microscope by the late Mr. John Quekett of the Hunterian Museum, who ascertained, beyond question, that in each of the cases the skin was human. From a communication by the late Mr. Albert Way, F.S.A., to the late Lord Braybrooke.
THE DIARY OF SAMUEL PEPYS M.A. F.R.S. WITH LORD BRAYBROOKE'S NOTES EDITED WITH ADDITIONS BY HENRY B. WHEATLEY F.S.A.
According to Le Cicerone de Versailles, printed under the Revolution (floreal, year XII), "The cabinet of natural history created in the palace of Versailles, year IV of the Republic, held... 'a human skin, white, and tanned with the greatest care, on which the hair and the nails were preserved' " (IC 1869 (395)). L'Itineraire de la France is quoted as saying that the museum of Nantes had the well-preserved skin "of a Republican soldier, killed in 1793 by the Vendeens during the siege of Nantes." (IC 1874 (179)). "An old Nantais" saw this in 1887 in the Museum of Natural HIstory and said that it belonged to a drummer of the armies of the First Republic who had left it to the Nation. (1910-2 (771)). An 1890 item entitled "A crucifix of human skin" may or may not be about that exact subject. The writer saw this crucifix - really a life-sized Christ, known as El Santisimo Cristo - four times at Burgos. Though sometimes credited to Nicodemus himself, it appeared to be either medieval or sixteenth century. He offers a long list of quotes on it by other writers, variously saying that:
The hands and the feet are really covered with slightly wrinkled human skin... The nails still stick to the skin... The wooden head is fastened to the bust with a perfectly adapted piece of skin.. Is it human? We think so...
or that it is an entire, stuffed, human skin, or the skin of a seal put on a human skeleton, or a wooden sculpture covered with a buffalo's skin. (18990 (537-538)). Anyone who wants to do a search on "Burgos Christ skin" will find various modern references like the following:
Christ, so revered at Burgos that no one is allowed to see it unless the candles are lighted, is a striking example of this strange taste: it is neither of stone, nor painted wood, it is made of human skin (so the monks say), stuffed with much art and care. The hair is real hair, the eyes have eye-lashes, the thorns of the crown are real thorns, and no detail has been forgotten. Nothing can be more lugubrious and disquieting than this attenuated, crucified phantom with its human appearance and deathlike stillness; the faded and brownish-yellow skin is streaked with long streams of blood, so well imitated that they seem to trickle.
- ZISKA'S DRUM
The idea that the skin of the Hussite commander Jan Ziska was turned into a drum, possibly at his own request, was also debated in the Intermediaire. In 1843, the Magasin Pittoresque published an article on Ziska which without confirming or refuting this claim says (132): "It is sure that a drum made with human skin, said to be that of Ziska, was, in the last century, transported from Bohemia to Berlin." and cites a letter (November 15, 1743) from Voltaire to Frederick which included this poem:
Is it true that, in your court,
You have placed, this autumn,
Among the furnishings of the crown,
The skin of this famous drum
That Ziska made of his person?
The skin of a great man, buried,
Is normally not much, and, despite his apotheosis,
By worms is devoured.
Only Ziska was spared
The destiny of the black tomb
Thanks to his preserved drum
His skin lasts as much as his glory!
It is a rather singular fate.
Ah! Pitiful mortals that we are
To save the skins of great men,
It must be dressed.
Oh my King! Conserve your own;
Because the good Lord who made it for you
Would not know how to make you another
In which he might put as much wit.
Frederick's response, starting in verse but ending in prose, basically says, "Yes, we took it." The article includes an image of the (rather banal looking) drum, itself copied from another work. A writer in the Intermediare says, based on work by Palacky, a historian of Bohemia, that "The Magasin Pittoresque... has repeated.. a purely fictive tradition, invented by Catholic historians to give Ziska the fierce character of a bandit." (1869 (641-642). George Sand, who wrote a book about Ziska, mentions this tale and its history with, at best, ambivalence.
For more about Ziska, search for his name in the Catholic Encyclopedia's article on "Hussites".