It'd likely come as no surprise to learn a university librarian is on the hunt for rare books. But UCLA librarian Megan Rosenbloom's quest is especially unique, as the California bibliophile is in the market for books bound in human skin.
Rosenbloom helped create the Anthropodermic Book Project to find as many of the ghoulish texts as she can. Her quest to find these rare pieces are part of her side hustle and it's kept her busy. She's already has been able to identify 50 human skin-bound books.
“One of the things that is really creepy about actually holding a human skin book is that they look like any other antique book on the shelf,” she told Inside Edition Digital. “So it's almost like this creepy secret that the book has, that it can be any color, it can be any kind of texture, it can be suede, it can be any kind of book covering you can think of.”
Not only is this her unusual hobby, she is also an expert on the subject and penned the book, “Dark Archives: A Librarian's Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin,” about the odd bound books.
“We created something called the Anthropodermic Book Project to see how many books we could find in public libraries and museums around the world and test them to find out for the first time in history, whether they were real human skin or if they were just other animals,” she said.
Rosenbloom says most of the books bound in human skin came from doctors in the 19th century.
“Real human skin books were made in the U.S. and in Europe, where people were doctors and book collectors, and they were doing dissections. And they didn't see anything wrong with just taking a piece of skin from the dissection and using it to bind their favorite book. Something that's really hard for us to imagine today but that's part of what makes this dark history so fascinating,” she said.
While the idea of human skin as a way to bound books might gross others out, many would think it isn’t real or that it was part of something much sinister.
“When people hear there are books bound in human skin, and they were real. It's very understandable from our modern perspective that you think, who were the worst monsters in history, like serial killers or Nazis. But we do not have any alleged books from that era so far to test,” she said.
The College of Physicians in Philadelphia has the largest collection of human skin bound books with a total of five in their catalogue. Four of them were made by one doctor named John Stockton Hough. The other book was made by a Dr. Joseph Leidy, roughly around the same time period, she said. “And he took this skin from a civil war soldier he was dissecting during the war and used the skin to bind the book— the anatomy books that he wrote himself,” she added.
The strange phenomenon says much about the 19th century and the era in which the books were crafted, Rosenbloom said.
“Doctors started seeing people, their patients, a little bit differently,” she said. “So if you see a whole lot of patients, and you're exploring them on these new sort of points of view, you can kind of lose sight of who they are as a person and start seeing things as ... more about diseases to be cured, the problems to be solved. And if you lose sight of someone's humanity like that, it can lead to what we call depersonalization. And that way of looking that's special to doctors of this time, is called the clinical gaze."
Since many of the books bound in the 19th century were made from leather, most people see human skin-bound books and can’t tell the difference. But there is a special scientific process known as peptide mass fingerprinting, which is used to determine whether something is made out of human leather or another animals leather, Rosenbloom said.
“We take a teeny, tiny little piece of the leather, if you can see with your eye, it's plenty big enough, and we put in a tiny little test tube, and we put this enzyme in it, and we run it through a machine called a mass spectrometer. What that does is it gets rid of all the contaminants and things and all you know is all the tests is what is exactly what it's made of not maybe what's on it right. And it shoots out this graph, and the graph, each animal has a different graph,” Rosenbloom explained.
While Rosenbloom is on the hunt to find the human skin bound books, she is also asking for some help.
“Anyone who has a book that has a note inside that says it's bound in human skin, or you work in a library that long had this book that everyone talked about, people could always contact the Anthropodermic Book Project,” she said. “You could go to anthropodermicbooks.org and send a message; it gives us a bunch of details. And then we can send along information for what it would take to get tested if people want to go that route.”