Books of Human Flesh: The History behind Anthropodermic Bibliopegy

From The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice:

The process of binding books using human flesh is known as ‘anthropodermic bibliopegy’. One of the earlier examples dates from the 17th century and currently resides in Langdell Law Library at Harvard University. It is a Spanish law book published in 1605. The colour of the binding is a ‘subdued yellow, with sporadic brown and black splotches like an old banana’. [1] On the last page, there is an inscription which reads:

"The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma [possibly an African tribe from modern-day Zimbabwe, see below illustration] on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Mbesa 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.”

Read it!

(Found via io9.)

CNN Video: Dead man riding motorcycle at his funeral

From 2010: CNN’s Jeanne Moos reports.

Sort-of related: When I lived in New York, I worked a block away from Time Warner Center (the building she’s standing outside of). I used to go over there to grab lunch at Whole Foods and I’d often see her standing outside interviewing people. She never stopped me, though. Sigh.

(Image via Oddity Central.)

Soapman’s ready for his close-up.
Source: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History on Flickr.

Soapman’s ready for his close-up.

Source: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History on Flickr.

This is the tomb of Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) in Eisenstadt, Austria. If the tomb looks a little more modern than you’d expect, you’d not be wrong. Turns out this tomb was built in 1932, and Haydn’s full remains weren’t interred here until 1954, almost a century and a half after the composer’s death.
Haydn had a wacky posthumous journey. He was originally buried in a cemetery outside Vienna. Soon after, however, two men, Joseph Carl Rosenbaum and Johann Nepomuk Peter, somewhat deviously managed to exhume him and take his head, motivated by their interest in phrenology. From Wikipedia:

The process of stealing the head was, apparently, not pleasant, since decomposition had set in and the smell was strong. However, Peter and Rosenbaum succeeded in cleaning the skull and duly carried out their phrenological examination. Peter declared that “the bump of music” in Haydn’s skull was indeed “fully developed”. Afterward, Peter kept it in a handsome custom-made black wooden box, with a symbolic golden lyre at the top, glass windows, and a white cushion.
In 1820, Haydn’s old patron Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II was inadvertently reminded by the chance remark of an acquaintance that he had forgotten to carry through his plan of having Haydn’s remains transferred from Gumpendorf to the family seat in Eisenstadt. When the remains were exhumed, the Prince was furious to find that they included no skull, and quickly deduced that Peter and Rosenbaum were responsible. However, through a series of devious maneuvers Peter and Rosenbaum managed to maintain possession of the skull. With both men’s houses due to be searched, Peter gave the skull to Rosenbaum, who hid it in a straw mattress. During the search of Rosenbaum’s house, his wife Therese lay on the bed and claimed to be menstruating—with the result that the searchers did not go near the mattress. Eventually Rosenbaum gave Prince Esterházy a different skull.

After this, the skull passed through many different hands, and it wasn’t until two decades after a descendant of Prince Esterházy built the tomb shown above that Haydn’s skull was reunited with the rest of his remains.

This is the tomb of Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) in Eisenstadt, Austria. If the tomb looks a little more modern than you’d expect, you’d not be wrong. Turns out this tomb was built in 1932, and Haydn’s full remains weren’t interred here until 1954, almost a century and a half after the composer’s death.

Haydn had a wacky posthumous journey. He was originally buried in a cemetery outside Vienna. Soon after, however, two men, Joseph Carl Rosenbaum and Johann Nepomuk Peter, somewhat deviously managed to exhume him and take his head, motivated by their interest in phrenology. From Wikipedia:

The process of stealing the head was, apparently, not pleasant, since decomposition had set in and the smell was strong. However, Peter and Rosenbaum succeeded in cleaning the skull and duly carried out their phrenological examination. Peter declared that “the bump of music” in Haydn’s skull was indeed “fully developed”. Afterward, Peter kept it in a handsome custom-made black wooden box, with a symbolic golden lyre at the top, glass windows, and a white cushion.

In 1820, Haydn’s old patron Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II was inadvertently reminded by the chance remark of an acquaintance that he had forgotten to carry through his plan of having Haydn’s remains transferred from Gumpendorf to the family seat in Eisenstadt. When the remains were exhumed, the Prince was furious to find that they included no skull, and quickly deduced that Peter and Rosenbaum were responsible. However, through a series of devious maneuvers Peter and Rosenbaum managed to maintain possession of the skull. With both men’s houses due to be searched, Peter gave the skull to Rosenbaum, who hid it in a straw mattress. During the search of Rosenbaum’s house, his wife Therese lay on the bed and claimed to be menstruating—with the result that the searchers did not go near the mattress. Eventually Rosenbaum gave Prince Esterházy a different skull.

After this, the skull passed through many different hands, and it wasn’t until two decades after a descendant of Prince Esterházy built the tomb shown above that Haydn’s skull was reunited with the rest of his remains.

Another garbed skeleton from Waldsassen Basilica. Source: Morbid Anatomy.

Another garbed skeleton from Waldsassen Basilica. Source: Morbid Anatomy.

Medical anatomy skull. Source: Ballyhooligan on Flickr, who adds:

Strange medical skull that was purchased in an antique shop in Pennsylvania. There is writing labeling the different parts of the skull. Previous owner wired the interior of the skull with red lights in the eyes so it glows and eerie red color.

Medical anatomy skull. Source: Ballyhooligan on Flickr, who adds:

Strange medical skull that was purchased in an antique shop in Pennsylvania. There is writing labeling the different parts of the skull. Previous owner wired the interior of the skull with red lights in the eyes so it glows and eerie red color.

These are two of the sharp-dressed skeletons at Waldsassen Basilica in Bavaria. Here is about all that’s really known about these guys, from Atlas Obscura:

Known as the “Holy Bodies,” they are the skeletons of Christian martyrs who were exhumed from the catacombs of Rome between 1688 and 1765. What makes these even more unusual than standard skeletal relics is that these skeletons are dressed in elaborate 1700s garb, covered in jewels, and generally look like royalty. Each year, the church celebrates a Holy-Bodies-Fest celebrating these martyrs, with the idea that we too are “Holy Bodies.”

(I’m not a textile expert, but these outfits look to predate the 1700s by a century or two, but I could be wrong.)
In addition to the article linked above, Atlas Obscura has a first-hand account of a visit to the Basilica, with more pictures!

These are two of the sharp-dressed skeletons at Waldsassen Basilica in Bavaria. Here is about all that’s really known about these guys, from Atlas Obscura:

Known as the “Holy Bodies,” they are the skeletons of Christian martyrs who were exhumed from the catacombs of Rome between 1688 and 1765. What makes these even more unusual than standard skeletal relics is that these skeletons are dressed in elaborate 1700s garb, covered in jewels, and generally look like royalty. Each year, the church celebrates a Holy-Bodies-Fest celebrating these martyrs, with the idea that we too are “Holy Bodies.”

(I’m not a textile expert, but these outfits look to predate the 1700s by a century or two, but I could be wrong.)

In addition to the article linked above, Atlas Obscura has a first-hand account of a visit to the Basilica, with more pictures!

I first learned about the Skeleton Lake of Roopkund on Atlas Obscura. It’s a glacial lake in India where, in 1942, a British forest guard made a ghastly discovery:

Some 16,000 feet above sea level, at the bottom of a small valley, was a frozen lake absolutely full of skeletons. That summer, the ice melting revealed even more skeletal remains, floating in the water and lying haphazardly around the lake’s edges. Something horrible had happened here. […]
Flesh, hair, and the bones themselves had been preserved by the dry, cold air, but no one could properly determine exactly when they were from. More than that, they had no idea what had killed over 200 people in this small valley. Many theories were put forth including an epidemic, landslide, and ritual suicide. For decades, no one was able to shed light on the mystery of Skeleton Lake.
However, a 2004 expedition to the site seems to have finally revealed the mystery of what caused those people’s deaths. The answer was stranger than anyone had guessed.
As it turns out, all the bodies date to around 850 AD. DNA evidence indicates that there were two distinct groups of people, one a family or tribe of closely related individuals, and a second smaller, shorter group of locals, likely hired as porters and guides. Rings, spears, leather shoes, and bamboo staves were found, leading experts to believe that the group was comprised of pilgrims heading through the valley with the help of the locals.
All the bodies had died in a similar way, from blows to the head. However, the short deep cracks in the skulls appeared to be the result not of weapons, but rather of something rounded. The bodies also only had wounds on their heads, and shoulders as if the blows had all come from directly above. What had killed them all, porter and pilgrim alike?
Among Himalayan women there is an ancient and traditional folk song. The lyrics describe a goddess so enraged at outsiders who defiled her mountain sanctuary that she rained death upon them by flinging hailstones “hard as iron.” After much research and consideration, the 2004 expedition came to the same conclusion. All 200 people died from a sudden and severe hailstorm.

Image Source: Amateur Traveler.

I first learned about the Skeleton Lake of Roopkund on Atlas Obscura. It’s a glacial lake in India where, in 1942, a British forest guard made a ghastly discovery:

Some 16,000 feet above sea level, at the bottom of a small valley, was a frozen lake absolutely full of skeletons. That summer, the ice melting revealed even more skeletal remains, floating in the water and lying haphazardly around the lake’s edges. Something horrible had happened here. […]

Flesh, hair, and the bones themselves had been preserved by the dry, cold air, but no one could properly determine exactly when they were from. More than that, they had no idea what had killed over 200 people in this small valley. Many theories were put forth including an epidemic, landslide, and ritual suicide. For decades, no one was able to shed light on the mystery of Skeleton Lake.

However, a 2004 expedition to the site seems to have finally revealed the mystery of what caused those people’s deaths. The answer was stranger than anyone had guessed.

As it turns out, all the bodies date to around 850 AD. DNA evidence indicates that there were two distinct groups of people, one a family or tribe of closely related individuals, and a second smaller, shorter group of locals, likely hired as porters and guides. Rings, spears, leather shoes, and bamboo staves were found, leading experts to believe that the group was comprised of pilgrims heading through the valley with the help of the locals.

All the bodies had died in a similar way, from blows to the head. However, the short deep cracks in the skulls appeared to be the result not of weapons, but rather of something rounded. The bodies also only had wounds on their heads, and shoulders as if the blows had all come from directly above. What had killed them all, porter and pilgrim alike?

Among Himalayan women there is an ancient and traditional folk song. The lyrics describe a goddess so enraged at outsiders who defiled her mountain sanctuary that she rained death upon them by flinging hailstones “hard as iron.” After much research and consideration, the 2004 expedition came to the same conclusion. All 200 people died from a sudden and severe hailstorm.

Image Source: Amateur Traveler.

The Guanajuato mummies, dating from the 19th century, are a famous local attraction in Guanajuato, Mexico. From Texas State University’s website:

The 111 mummies have become the prime tourist attraction in a Spanish-colonial city that has been named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.  The mummies began to be exhumed from a Guanajuato cemetery in 1870 when a law was enacted locally requiring families to pay a “burial tax” to ensure the perpetual burial of a loved one. If the tax was not paid, the body was removed. Being naturally mummified, it was stored in a building above ground, and people began paying to see the bodies in the late 1800s.  The law requiring the burial tax was abolished in 1958.

This site has a lot of images—some of them a bit disturbing. Many of the mummies have pained expressions on their faces, possibly due to facial contractions after death. These have led many to believe that some of the mummies—hastily buried during a cholera outbreak—were actually buried alive.
(Image Source: Intense Experiences.)

The Guanajuato mummies, dating from the 19th century, are a famous local attraction in Guanajuato, Mexico. From Texas State University’s website:

The 111 mummies have become the prime tourist attraction in a Spanish-colonial city that has been named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.  The mummies began to be exhumed from a Guanajuato cemetery in 1870 when a law was enacted locally requiring families to pay a “burial tax” to ensure the perpetual burial of a loved one. If the tax was not paid, the body was removed. Being naturally mummified, it was stored in a building above ground, and people began paying to see the bodies in the late 1800s.  The law requiring the burial tax was abolished in 1958.

This site has a lot of images—some of them a bit disturbing. Many of the mummies have pained expressions on their faces, possibly due to facial contractions after death. These have led many to believe that some of the mummies—hastily buried during a cholera outbreak—were actually buried alive.

(Image Source: Intense Experiences.)

Tollund Man (ca. 400 B.C.) is a bog body superstar. He was found in 1950 in Denmark. He was so well preserved that his discoverers thought he was a modern murder victim. More from Wikipedia:
 

On the initial autopsy report in 1950, doctors concluded that Tollund Man died by hanging rather than strangulation. The rope left visible furrows in the skin beneath his chin and at the sides of his neck. There was no mark, however, at the back of the neck where the knot of the noose would have been located. After a re-examination in 2002, forensic scientists found further evidence to support these initial findings. Although the cervical vertebrae were undamaged (as they often are in hanging victims), radiography showed that the tongue was distended—an indication of death by hanging.
The stomach and intestines were examined and tests carried out on their contents. The scientists discovered that the man’s last meal had been a kind of porridge made from vegetables and seeds, both cultivated and wild: Barley, linseed, gold of pleasure (Camelina sativa), knotweed, bristlegrass, and chamomile.
There were no traces of meat in the man’s digestive system, and from the stage of digestion it was apparent that the man had lived for 12 to 24 hours after this last meal. In other words, he may not have eaten for up to a day before his death. Although similar vegetable soups were not unusual for people of this time, two interesting things were noted:
The soup contained many different kinds of wild and cultivated seeds. Because these seeds were not readily available, it is likely that some of them were gathered deliberately for a special occasion.
The soup was made from seeds only available near the spring where he was found.

PBS/NOVA has an interactive guide to Tollund Man. Worth checking out.
Image Source: Wikipedia.

Tollund Man (ca. 400 B.C.) is a bog body superstar. He was found in 1950 in Denmark. He was so well preserved that his discoverers thought he was a modern murder victim. More from Wikipedia:

On the initial autopsy report in 1950, doctors concluded that Tollund Man died by hanging rather than strangulation. The rope left visible furrows in the skin beneath his chin and at the sides of his neck. There was no mark, however, at the back of the neck where the knot of the noose would have been located. After a re-examination in 2002, forensic scientists found further evidence to support these initial findings. Although the cervical vertebrae were undamaged (as they often are in hanging victims), radiography showed that the tongue was distended—an indication of death by hanging.

The stomach and intestines were examined and tests carried out on their contents. The scientists discovered that the man’s last meal had been a kind of porridge made from vegetables and seeds, both cultivated and wild: Barley, linseed, gold of pleasure (Camelina sativa), knotweed, bristlegrass, and chamomile.

There were no traces of meat in the man’s digestive system, and from the stage of digestion it was apparent that the man had lived for 12 to 24 hours after this last meal. In other words, he may not have eaten for up to a day before his death. Although similar vegetable soups were not unusual for people of this time, two interesting things were noted:

  • The soup contained many different kinds of wild and cultivated seeds. Because these seeds were not readily available, it is likely that some of them were gathered deliberately for a special occasion.
  • The soup was made from seeds only available near the spring where he was found.

PBS/NOVA has an interactive guide to Tollund Man. Worth checking out.

Image Source: Wikipedia.

Chandelier containing at least one of each bone in the human body. Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic. (Source: Todd Huffmann on Flickr. He has a ton of great Sedlec shots on there.)

Chandelier containing at least one of each bone in the human body. Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic. (Source: Todd Huffmann on Flickr. He has a ton of great Sedlec shots on there.)

Another view of the Sedlec Ossuary outside Prague. More to come. (Source: SoulStealer.co.uk’s Flickr.)

Another view of the Sedlec Ossuary outside Prague. More to come. (Source: SoulStealer.co.uk’s Flickr.)

Hand of Glory entry number two. Sort of.
This is the White Hart Inn in Caldmore (pronounced “Kar-ma”), a village in the town of Walsall in the West Midlands of England. From Gary S. Crutchley’s Flickr (image source):
 

This former inn has something of a haunted reputation locally. In the latter part of the nineteenth century The White Hart was renovated, and, during the work, a child’s arm was found hidden in an attic chimney. The arm has become known as the ‘Hand of Glory’, traditionally a hand cut from a hanged felon and dried in the prescribed manner. Then, either by lighting the fingers themselves or using the hand as a candle holder, the Hand was supposed to stupefy any person seeing it, thus enabling a burglar to ransack a house without being caught. It was generally believed that the flames could not be blown out by any ordinary person and that milk was the only liquid able to extinguish the candle.
This grisly object, now on display in Walsall Museum, seems to be a medical specimen, dissected by a surgeon and injected with formalin to preserve it. It certainly does not date from the time when the house was first built. However, popular legend refuses to accept such a dull solution. There are many other tales of haunted happenings, into modern times, and The White Hart has become known as the home of ‘The Caldmore Ghost’.

So, while we haven’t got a real Hand of Glory on our hands, it’s still a pretty cool story. There aren’t many good pictures on the Internet of the arm (which is now on display at the Walsall Museum), but here’s one:
Edit, 2/11/12: Oh, nevermind. The picture got deleted from the internet.

Hand of Glory entry number two. Sort of.

This is the White Hart Inn in Caldmore (pronounced “Kar-ma”), a village in the town of Walsall in the West Midlands of England. From Gary S. Crutchley’s Flickr (image source):

This former inn has something of a haunted reputation locally. In the latter part of the nineteenth century The White Hart was renovated, and, during the work, a child’s arm was found hidden in an attic chimney. The arm has become known as the ‘Hand of Glory’, traditionally a hand cut from a hanged felon and dried in the prescribed manner. Then, either by lighting the fingers themselves or using the hand as a candle holder, the Hand was supposed to stupefy any person seeing it, thus enabling a burglar to ransack a house without being caught. It was generally believed that the flames could not be blown out by any ordinary person and that milk was the only liquid able to extinguish the candle.

This grisly object, now on display in Walsall Museum, seems to be a medical specimen, dissected by a surgeon and injected with formalin to preserve it. It certainly does not date from the time when the house was first built. However, popular legend refuses to accept such a dull solution. There are many other tales of haunted happenings, into modern times, and The White Hart has become known as the home of ‘The Caldmore Ghost’.

So, while we haven’t got a real Hand of Glory on our hands, it’s still a pretty cool story. There aren’t many good pictures on the Internet of the arm (which is now on display at the Walsall Museum), but here’s one:

Edit, 2/11/12: Oh, nevermind. The picture got deleted from the internet.

 
The ducal crypt of Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephensdom), is resting place to the organs and viscera of princes, queens and emperors. From Atlas Obscura’s article on the crypts of the cathedral:

Along with some bodies and hearts, over 60 jars of imperial intestines rest in the ducal crypt, including one containing Hapsburg Queen Maria Teresa’ s sovereign stomach. Not long ago, one of the seals on the jar broke, leaking 200 year-old visceral fluid onto the floor. The stink was apparently so awful that it took a day or two before someone was willing to go down and address the situation.
In 1735, Vienna experienced an outbreak of the bubonic plague. In an effort to keep the Black Death at bay, the numerous cemeteries surrounding the Stephensdom and the charnel house (a building for storing stacked bones) were emptied, and thousands of bones and rotting corpses were thrown down into the pits dug in the floor of the crypt. The downside to this arrangement was that the smell of the catacombs would occasionally waft up into the church and make religious services impossible.
To combat the unfortunate smell, as well as make room for more bodies, a few unlucky prisoners were lowered into the pits where they were forced to scrub the rotting flesh off the plague-ridden and disordered bodies, snapping and breaking the skeletons down to individual bones, and stacking them into neatly ordered rows, skulls on top. It seems that they never finished the job—to this day, one can still find sections of the crypt scattered with piles of disorganized bones and deteriorating coffins.

Image Source: pkingDesign, on Flickr.

The ducal crypt of Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephensdom), is resting place to the organs and viscera of princes, queens and emperors. From Atlas Obscura’s article on the crypts of the cathedral:

Along with some bodies and hearts, over 60 jars of imperial intestines rest in the ducal crypt, including one containing Hapsburg Queen Maria Teresa’ s sovereign stomach. Not long ago, one of the seals on the jar broke, leaking 200 year-old visceral fluid onto the floor. The stink was apparently so awful that it took a day or two before someone was willing to go down and address the situation.

In 1735, Vienna experienced an outbreak of the bubonic plague. In an effort to keep the Black Death at bay, the numerous cemeteries surrounding the Stephensdom and the charnel house (a building for storing stacked bones) were emptied, and thousands of bones and rotting corpses were thrown down into the pits dug in the floor of the crypt. The downside to this arrangement was that the smell of the catacombs would occasionally waft up into the church and make religious services impossible.

To combat the unfortunate smell, as well as make room for more bodies, a few unlucky prisoners were lowered into the pits where they were forced to scrub the rotting flesh off the plague-ridden and disordered bodies, snapping and breaking the skeletons down to individual bones, and stacking them into neatly ordered rows, skulls on top. It seems that they never finished the job—to this day, one can still find sections of the crypt scattered with piles of disorganized bones and deteriorating coffins.

Image Source: pkingDesign, on Flickr.

Skeletons, mummies, bog bodies, exhumations. The dead, and what happens to them.

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