Herodotus, Harvard, and a History of Human Hides

Funeral Industry News Lighter Side April 9, 2024

Herodotus, Harvard, and a History of Human Hides

Ok, let’s be clear: nobody’s out here skinning people to turn into purses or stilettos or footballs for the sake of a death care blog post. We didn’t source info for this piece from YouTube channels detailing the practice of tanning human hide, so maybe the title’s a little click-bait-y.

But once upon a time, certain members of the general populace did fashion stuff from leather made out of actual persons. And as deeply unsavory as that certainly is, it’s also historical fact… as is the case that these people-leather artifacts continue to abide today, with all the characteristics of hardcore durability we’ve all come to expect from leather.

Who would do such a thing?

Right? Seriously. Aside from recent society’s disturbing criminal examples, in times more recent that the medieval, anthropodermic bibliopegy – the practice of bookbinding using human skin – was common enough to merit this ominous-sounding scientific designation. (The answer, by the way, was generally members of the medical profession – almost always the case with weird postmortem business.)

But the actual use of human dermis for leather was discussed way earlier, nearly three thousand years ago, by Herodotus, who wrote that the Syrinians created leather from human skin in a context of war as early as 800 BC (doesn’t that idea sit a little better at a distance of multiple millenia?).

Only Wikipedia says human leather bookbinding peaked in the 19th century. And research for this article turned up at least one shop currently online selling human skin by the square inch. (Are people buying it? Let’s not link to that one.)

The rotten little apple doesn’t fall far from the tree

It’s not like the spirit of society has advanced dramatically since the days of Herodotus. As 2024 began, Harvard University still held a well-publicized book which may be the most notorious recent example yet, of which The Harvard Crimson wrote the following in 2006:

Back in Harvard Yard, in the rarefied confines of Harvard’s Houghton Collection, resides “Des destinées de l’ame…,” a collection of essays meditating on the human spirit by Arsène Houssaye, a French poet and essayist.

Houghton’s associate librarian for collections, Thomas Horrocks, describes the light volume as one of the author’s lesser works.

Notes from a now-missing typed memorandum that once accompanied the book revealed that the binding’s skin comes from “the back of the unclaimed body of a woman patient in a French mental hospital who died suddenly of apoplexy [emphasis added].”

The shadiest of citations, to be sure, this apocryphal “lost memorandum,” but apoplexy really makes it, so I’m glad they put that in.

Anyway. When this volume’s binding was verified to be of human tissue in 2014, the announcement to that effect was made with decidedly less shamed gravitas (“good news for fans of anthropodermic bibliopegy, bibliomaniacs and cannibals alike”) than the university’s most recent self-condemnation (“Harvard Library acknowledges past failures in its stewardship of the book that further objectified and compromised the dignity of the human being whose remains were used for its binding. We apologize to those adversely affected by these actions.”). (That’s nice.)

In any event, here’s the point of all that: once upon a time, this single book was not the only book in Harvard’s collection known or suspected to have been bound in the ruddy complexions of random homo sapiens.

And for a long time, that was just fine.

Leather by any name

Whatever else we may be, we’re all animals, just like our animal cousins most known for contributing their hides to our lifestyle and economy, and human skin – our largest, most flexible organ – shares many common biological traits with their own – all proteins and lipids, hair follicles, organic compounds and cellular structures.

The material harvested from the frame of humankind is largely the same as the hide of a deer, elk, cow, buffalo, pig or other large mammal (or even reptile), so the process for turning human skin into utilitarian material is essentially identical to the process of tanning any other type of animal hide.

It can be complicated, but the main idea involves removing the moisture from the protein fibers in the skin, and then cementing the fibers together. There are many ways this can be accomplished; the history of tanning and its evolution is an interesting one.

But the most intriguing (and perhaps more ethically sound) application for the non-traditional enlistment of human skin is that of lab-grown human dermis. The research is sophisticated to the point where skin grafts are three-dimensionally grown into form-specific shapes like gloves or socks, rather than harvested from patients themselves (often burn victims) in two-dimensional sheets.

The whole business gives me distinct Dolly vibes, but even that’s easier to consider than holding some anonymous person’s backside or flanks in my hands while I try to read.