Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1930, source unknown. The world of John Sanders.
That’s All She Wrote
In 1941 Hannah Dustin French of the Wellesley College Library published an essay entitled “Early American Bookbinding by Hand.” In the essay, she makes mention of American’s first bookbinder:
Bookbinding was one of the very early crafts to be practiced in this country, but where the first book was bound and what it was like we do not know. A bookbinder, John Sanders by name, took the freeman’s oath in Boston in 1636 and purchased a shop for himself there in 1637.
French and other book historians drew their information from an exhibition catalogue published by the Grolier Club, a literary society in New York still in existence. In turn, the editor of that 1907 publication cites a much older work. Unfortunately, A History of American Manufacturers from 1608 to 1860, Volume I, gives no further source for the information.
Thus begins the frustrating search for the elusive Mr. Sanders. It is left to the armchair historian to head down rabbit holes, consult ancient texts and modern search engines, and extrapolate, conjecture, and theorize to come up with a portrait of the man and his work. In the process, she finds many tantalizing topics relating to publishing in early America, from the female owner of the first print shop in the Colonies, to the mass printing of “Indian Bibles” in the 1660s and the Native American called “James Printer” who helped with the translation and typesetting of that publication. She even stumbles upon a 20th century hoax involving a Puritan document and the first bookstore/coffee house in America.
The Freeman’s Oath
To understand a little bit about who John Sanders was, it is a good idea to start with the Freeman’s Oath. That testament was a declaration of loyalty to authority required by both the Plymouth Colony (founded 1620) and the Massachusetts Bay Colony (founded 1630) to be eligible for public office or even to vote in town meetings. As the name makes apparent, the Freeman’s Oath was available only to free men and not to slaves, indentured servants, apprentices, or women. Even then, a man had to demonstrate that he was of “a quiet and peaceful manner” and be sponsored by other freemen.
The Oath read, in part,
I [NAME], being, by God’s providence, an inhabitant & freeman within the jurisdiccon of this comonweale, doe freely acknowledge my selfe to be subject to the govermt thereof, & therefore doe here sweare, by the greate & dreadfull name of the eurlyving God, that I will be true & faithfull to the same….
Spellings may vary!
There is no known extant copy of the broadside Freeman’s Oath printed by Stephen Daye in 1639. The document above, touted as a rare find in 1985, turned out to be a hoax perpetrated by infamous forger and murderer Mark Hoffman in a bizarre case in the annals of archival history. Hoffman is currently serving a life sentence at the Utah State Prison.
Signs of the Times
French tells us that Sanders took the Freeman’s Oath in Boston in 1836. This was only six years after the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony of which Boston was the lead town. Although Massachusetts quickly grew to about 20,000 European inhabitants before 1840, it must have been a rough and ready community.
So, the question is begged: what was there to bind? In those days there would have been no book publishers, no newspapers, and no printing press! Indeed, the first printing press in Colonial America arrived by ship from England in 1638, a year after Sanders allegedly set up his bookbinding establishment. Venturing into conjecture now, it is possible his work consisted of repairing and rebinding bibles and hymnbooks for the good people of the colony. Perhaps there was also work binding personal correspondence, hand-written memoirs, and volumes of poetry.
All we don’t know
John Sanders left no signed work behind. Indeed, it would have been highly unusual if he had. Puritans generally frowned on prideful things. We do not know how long he was in the bookbinding trade. Without partnering with a printer, it is doubtful anyone could have made a living by bookbinding alone at that time. The first print shop was set up in Cambridge by the widow Glover and her employee, Stephen Day [or Daye] in 1638. Within three years the press had turned out a broadside of our Freeman’s Oath, an “Almanack,” and the Bay Psalm Book; however, there is no evidence that John Sanders or any other independent bookbinder was associated with this enterprise, which was the precursor to the Harvard University Press.
The history maven turns to online genealogical services in an attempt to find information on Mr. Sanders. Alas, the name Sanders or Saunders is quite common and there is no “match” for a bookbinder in Boston in 1637. It is tempting to identify our bookbinder in one John Saunders of Salem, Massachusetts, with the dates 1613 to 1643. Thanks to previous researchers there is a great deal of genealogical information on this man:
John Saunders of Salem came to America as a teenager in about 1629, shortly before the official establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which, it should be noted, encompassed both Boston and Salem, 15 miles apart.
John Saunders of Salem became a “freeman” (i.e. took the Freeman’s Oath) in 1836, the same year as John Sanders the bookbinder. In fact, in a 1906 compilation of freemen in the colony, there is only one John Sanders listed for that year. (List of Freemen, Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1630 to 1691, Exira Printing Company, 1906)
John Sanders of Salem became a freeman approximately seven years after arriving from England; could it be that he came as an indentured servant and, having completed his service in Salem, hied himself to the big city to try his hand at business?
It is here that the researcher finds herself falling down a rabbit hole lined with the proceedings of various obscure historical societies and hopes for a soft landing, particular after reading the following from a meticulously researched work by a 19th century Saunders:
During the years 1635-38 there were so many of the name of Sanders who came to the new settlement, their advent so united, their means so liberal, and their ability so acknowledged, that one can but infer they were members of one family. (The Founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Sarah Saunders Smith, 1897)
Tools of the Trade
Conjecture is a dangerous business. Better that we use our imagination to picture the establishment of Mr. Sanders. It would likely have been a modest workshop adjoining living quarters. Mr. Sanders no doubt employed the basic tools of the trade: sewing frame, glue pot, beating hammer, and plough. If he did more than simple repairs of existing bindings, he would likely have employed sheep or calf skin over oak or birch boards, using materials readily available in the colony. (A tannery was established in the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the 1630s.) He would likely have manufactured his own tools or employed the services of a carpenter. If he ventured into ornamentation at all, it would have consisted of blind tooling leather covers with simple geometric or natural imagery. There would have been no thought of gilt.
We do not know how long Mr. Sanders remained in business. The historian Hugh Amory, writing in the 1990s, goes one step farther than other writers and states that John Saunders worked until 1651, but, he provides no citation for this assertion. If, in fact, Bookbinder Saunders continued in work through the 1640s he might have found work with the printer of the Bay Psalm Book, then located at Harvard College. If he endured into the 1660s, he might have been involved in the production of the Eliot Indian Bible. In that huge undertaking, he would have had competition from other bookbinders, including one John Ratliffe (or Racliffe).
But all that is a story for another decade.
Not a forgery: The Bay Psalm Book was the first book printed in America. Whether John Sanders might have had a hand in binding the work is unknown.
Leander Bishop, M.D., A History of American Manufacturers from 1608 to 1860, Volume I, 1861, available through Google Books.
Hannah Dustin French, “Early American Bookbinding by Hand,” in Bookbinding in America: Three Essays, 1941.
Lawrence C. Wroth, The Colonial Printer, 1931.
The Grolier Club, The Grolier Catalogue of Ornamental Bookbindings Executed in America before 1850, 1907, available through Google Books.
Hugh Amory, Bibliography and the Book Trades: Studies in the Print Culture of Early New England, essays edited by David D. Hall, 2013.
ABM Guest Blogger Eleanor Boba is a public historian who blogs about historic places off the beaten path and other curious matters. She lives in Seattle.
“I am not so regular in my sleep as the Doctor (Rush) says he was, devoting to it from five to eight hours, according as my company or the book I am reading interests me; and I never go to bed without an hour or half an hour’s previous reading of something moral, whereon to ruminate in the intervals of sleep.” (Jefferson, quoted in Boutell, 1891.)
Thomas Jefferson is known primarily as the Father of the Constitution and the third President, but he was also an ardent supporter, admirer, and reader of books. To him, books were far more than a pastime; they contributed to both a moral and democratic education. And Jefferson liked to read the classics in their original form, “in all the beauties of their originals” (Boutell, 1891, p. 40). It was Jefferson’s library of 6,487 works that replaced the Congressional Library when it was burned by the British in 1814 (for which he was paid $23,950), arguably making Jefferson also the Father of the Library of Congress. The Library of Congress has gathered together many of these original books (see also this video).
Jefferson carefully collected and curated his library, spending a summer or two in Parisian bookstores “turning over every book with my own hand, and putting by everything which related to America. . .” (Boutell, 1891, p. 42). Given the expense and effort required to develop a book collection, Jefferson’s was notable, and thought by many to be one of the largest in the country. We can imagine what Jefferson’s library might have looked like. Jefferson notes that “nearly the whole are well-bound” (p. 43). Jefferson’s library would have probably contained a combination of leather bound books with gold tooling; books still in their original plain paper wrappers temporarily sewn together until Jefferson could take them to his own binder; and books bound with stiff covers with adverts printed on them. One list of Jefferson’s books indicates that some were purchased “bound” while others had a “fancy binding” and still others were in “Boards” (Jefferson, 2011). A letter from Jefferson to Robert Skipwith tells of the books needed to put together a beginning library, and mentions that the binding of the books will result in varying costs. “These books if bound quite plain will cost the prices affixed in this catalogue. If bound elegantly, gilt, lettered, and marbled on the leaves, they will cost 20.p. Cent more. If bound by Bumgarden in fine Marbled bindings, they will cost 50.p. Cent more” (Boyd, 1950).
Jefferson engaged in some bookbinding of his own. In 1819 he created what has come to be known as the “Jefferson Bible”. He did not use the usual bookbinding strategies; instead he carefully removed pages from the Gospels in four languages (English, Latin, French and Greek) and glued them to paper. The 86-page presentation presents a multi-lingual history of Jesus’ life from an enlightenment perspective (no miracles, angels, saints or other-worldly contents were included). He sent his handmade creation on to Frederick August Mayo to be bound. A facsimile copy of the Bible was produced in 1902 and was presented to Senators on the day they took office until the copies ran out in 1957.
Bookbinding was clearly important to Jefferson in building his own collection, and it has also played an important role in preserving his works. His 1783 Book Catalogwas bound and is preserved at the Massachusetts Historical Society. In 2000 the Society disbound, cleaned, deacidified, and repaired the volume using Japanese tissue paper and wheat paste, returning it to its original bound condition. The volume was also digitized at this time. The Government printing office rebinds Jefferson’s Manual for House of Representatives Procedures every two years, using some traditional methods, including marbling the manual’s edges, assembling leather covers, and gold stamping them. A recent bookbinding exhibit featured Thomas Jefferson’s Paris Walks, a book of Jefferson’s sketches and commentary, together with modern photographs, which was especially bound for the exhibit using traditional methods.
As we celebrate Jefferson’s 274th birthday, we can appreciate his passionate appreciation of books–and bookbinding. Binding provided the tools for projects like the Jefferson Bible, and the bound record of his large book collection. The utility of binding has preserved his work; the beauty of bindings delighted his eye–and ours.
Dr. Mary Vasudeva has a PhD in English and currently teaches writing and critical thinking at Diablo Valley College. She is also studying for her Masters in Library and Information Science at San Jose State University. Recent publications include a book review of Overcoming Information Poverty, by Anthony McKeown and selected writing sections for the textbook, Asking the Right Questions, in the forthcoming 12th edition.
Boyd, J. ed (1950). From Thomas Jefferson to Robert Skipwith, with a List of Books for a Private Library, 3 August 1771,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-01-02-0056. Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 1, 1760–1776. Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 76–81.
Jefferson, T., & Looney, J. J. (2011). The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series: Volume 7: 28 November 1813 to 30 September 1814. Princeton University Press.
The history of unions in the US is firmly rooted in the much older Guild system that arose in medieval Europe (and which in turn may have sprung from the collegia of the Roman Empire). It’s easy to forget, with all the anti- and pro-union rhetoric that gets slung around in this day and age, what an astonishing and effective system the Guilds were. They were generally divided into three classes: merchant guilds, craft guilds, and service guilds. The merchant guilds were for… well, merchants, those who traded between cities and nations, as well as locally. They might sell raw materials to artisans, or sell an artisan’s product (wool, woven into cloth, for example) but they were not generally producers. Craft guilds, which included makers of all sorts, from victuallers (bakers, butchers, brewers) to printers, papermakers, and bookbinders, were focused on production. Lastly, there were service guilds, to which clerks, drivers, and barbers would have belonged (remember that barbers were dentists and surgeons as well as tonsorial experts).
It may not be the first thing we think of now, but guilds’ primary function was to serve “as mechanisms for organizing, managing, and financing the collective quest for eternal salvation”1 by enforcing routine participation in religious services, organizing alms and festivals on Holy Days, and providing burial, funeral masses, and distributing alms in the name of the deceased. Guilds required standards of piety in their members, in line with Christian values: honesty, chastity, respect for authority, rest on the Sabbath. Would the man-on-the-street in medieval Europe have been familiar with these standards? Of course. But the guilds reinforced them, essentially policing piety among members for their souls’ sakes.
Guilds also provided enforcement of professional standards. It was in the interest of all members that workmanship and merchandise be of the highest standard; to that end, some guilds sent out inspectors to check members’ products, even their homes and workshops, to ensure that all the guild rules were being met.2 If a member failed to keep his work to the guild’s standard he might be fined; if he continued to do so he could–and often was–expelled from the guild. This was no small matter: not only would he be barred from practicing his own trade, but the guild would cease involvement in the member’s religious life: no burial or masses provided, no alms distributed in his name. Members were, in fact, forbidden to pray for him.
Finally, guilds provided continuity of knowledge through the apprentice system.3 A boy, apprenticed to a master craftsman, would learn all parts of the master’s work and–hopefully–become first a journeyman (a skilled employee or day-laborer) and, then a master himself. In the wake of the Black Death the apprentice system became important as a way of creating an informal structure for both children and craftsmen who had lost some or all of their families, and assured that the skills and experience of one generation would not be lost to the next. However, the progression from apprentice to journeyman to master was not always so orderly. Some apprentices rebelled and ran away from their masters; some journeymen never had the ambition to become master themselves, or could not save enough money to set up a shop and create the “masterpiece” that would permit him entry into the guild (in London, in 1747, the cost to set up a bindery could be between £50-£100).4
Medieval guilds flourished, becoming the center of social, and of religious life in cities and towns, but with the advent of the Reformation their influence began to wane (not least because their primary religious function was out of step with new beliefs). In some nations guilds were suppressed; in others some guilds dwindled into “friendly societies,” where “it was the custom of many of the journeymen to meet in public houses adjoining their workshops, to drink ‘a social pint of porter.’”5 Sometimes–as in London in the 1780s–these societies grew into trade associations, journeymen banded together to negotiate, or force, better terms from the masters. These societies differed from the guilds because they were no longer groups that included all binders: they were meant specifically to advocate for the journeymen against the masters.
There we see the the genesis of the modern labor union. In the US, where the guild system was a remnant of the medieval system, “friendly societies” and “brotherhoods” became trade unions. In the UK, where guilds persisted, even co-existed with trade unions, they came to occupy a position of some civic power and a good deal of ceremonial pomp. It is doubtful a medieval apprentice, journeyman, or master would recognize the current incarnation of the guild.
At the turn of 1636, Sir John Lambe was presented with a series of complaints by a group of journeyman printers. Lambe was serving as a member of the Court of High Commission, an ecclesiastical court set up by Queen Elizabeth in 1559, whose duties included some degree of oversight of the early modern book trade. It was in this capacity that Lambe found himself weighing in on a list of what the bibliographer W. W. Greg pithily summarised as ‘Apprentices Out of Order’.
Fifty years ago last night, the Arno River in Florence burst its banks and flooded the city, reaching depths of 18-22 feet. Water raged through the streets at some 30-40 miles per hour, tumbling cars and even newsstands as easily as if they were children’s toys. Shops on the famous bridges of the Arno looked as though they had been hit by bombs. Basement furnaces leaked and exploded, and the pressure of the water blew out the sewers. When the waters receded after a few days, the city was covered in a thick, foul slime of mud, sewage, oil, and waterlogged detritus.
Our exhibit, BOOKS AND MUD: THE DROWNED LIBRARIES OF FLORENCE looks at the damage and recovery effort in a single library in Florence, the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, in which nearly 100,000 precious early modern volumes were left waterlogged and mud-caked. It has been up for two weeks, and many of the visitors who have come to see it have some memory to share of the 1966 flood. Some remember hearing about it and wishing they had gone to help, while others tell us a bit about being on the scene.
The technical achievement of the restoration workers is, of course, vitally important and interesting to study. The methods the skilled men and women who saved the books developed informs much of the way water-damaged books are managed even today.
That said, the part of the story that seems to lie at the heart of everyone’s memory of the Florence flood of 1966 is the part where thousands of young people came from all over Italy, Europe, and many parts of the world to volunteer their time and labor as angeli del tango: mud angels. They formed lines to the basements of museums, libraries, and palaces, passing books, artwork, and other treasures one at a time to the fresh air and the hands of the professional restorers. They took shovels and buckets and dug mud out of stores, homes, and streets.
The raw film footage and photographs of these mud angels, most of whom remain unidentified in these visual records, is moving and heartwarming. It is beautiful to see the way they move through the streets, filthy and tired, doing what they can to restore the everyday life and priceless treasures of Florence. In the well-worn phrase, it gives one faith in humanity.
As I write this, Italy is once again dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters. In the past few months, nearly 250 medium-strength or greater earthquakes have rocked the country. Nearly 300 people died as a result of the August 24 earthquake around the town of Amatrice. The town of Arquata del Tronto has been more or less destroyed. Those wishing to aid the relief efforts can donate here. The Italian Cultural Institute here in San Francisco is also offering the chance to donate via an artist’s exhibit and auction. The auction will take place at the Institute on December 8, 2016, from 6-9pm.
We have also kept track of floods in 2016 as part of the exhibit, or at least, as many floods as we’ve been able to track down. We have a world map on display with color-coded pins indicating flood frequency and severity, and it is updated daily.
Recent major flooding in the United States has of course caught our attention. West Virginia, Louisiana, and the Carolinas have been particularly affected recently, and all have put out appeals for help in rebuilding the public library collections and those of the public schools. Baton Rouge school librarian Trey Veazey’s blog post on the subject spread around social media, but aid is needed all over the affected areas. Most have lost most or all of their collections, and rebuilding is expensive and necessary. Veazey writes:
We are relocating. We’ve been ushered over to a building that was built in 1937. That means my new school is the same age as And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street. It also means that, in my first year as a librarian, I have a library without any books.
Access to books is the key to educational success. Our library doesn’t have books. Our classrooms don’t have books. Many of the homes of our students don’t have books. Like the tears that rolled down our faces both in silent & violent measures, they became a part of the flood before being swept away as we looked toward rebuilding & recovery.
Most of us can’t go dig these places out of the mud and sweep away the flood waters, but other ways you can help may be found here:
Until relatively recently in human history, books and documents were valued both for their contents and for the prodigious effort involved in their creation. Book production in a pre-computer age required a high level of literacy, as well as many hours of monotonous labor, whether that of a stoneworker, metal engraver, scribe or printer’s devil.
It was the custom in some cultures to protect precious works by whatever means available: many medieval libraries chained books their shelves to prevent theft,** private collectors might keep their most valued books in locked chests. Especially rare, illustrated tomes might be bound with their own locking clasps to prevent sticky fingers from helping themselves to a page or two.
An additional layer of protection was afforded by the book curse. There are examples of book curses appended to written records from ancient times. They flourished in medieval Europe where scribes, typically monks, were eager to protect the product of their labor. And they can still be found today!
We all know about the curses of Ancient Egypt. Most good mummy movies (and all of the bad ones) feature dire epigraphs warning against the desecration of temple and tomb. The same principle was applied to valuable documents. A Babylonian king placed a curse on a set of clay tablets back in the 7th century B.C.:
Whosover shall carry off this tablet, or shall inscribe hisname on it, side by side with mine own, may Ashur and Belit overthrow him in wrath and anger, and may they destroy his name and posterity in the land.***
The above is taken from the definitive work on book curses: Anathema – Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses (Allanheld & Schram, 1983), by Marc Drogin. Drogin finds additional examples from classical Greece, written on parchment. But he devotes the bulk of his study to medieval book curses.
On this subject, Drogin goes to some length to explain how books were made in the era of monastic scribes, illuminated manuscripts, and parchment. With all the resources required to create a single volume, it is no wonder the scribes and their masters were inclined to take drastic measures to protect them. Book curses appeared frequently, generally on the first or last page of a volume as part of the colophon.
Being of a religious bent, these men (and some women) tended to call down the wrath of God on miscreants.
This book is one,
And God’s curse is another;
They that take the one
God give them the other.+
Excommunication from the (Catholic) Church, with the implication of eternal damnation, was an especially popular threat. However, the good brothers were not beyond calling for more earthly torments for those who might undermine their work:
To steal this book, if you should try,
It’s by the throat that you’ll hang high.
And ravens then will gather ‘bout
To find your eyes and pull them out.++
Whether in good Church Latin or in the vernacular of the land, medieval scribes did not hesitate to execrate!
Once Gutenberg’s printing press and its descendants got rolling, books and copies of books became more readily available. Still, the work of setting up type, incising illustrations into metal plates, and manually “pulling” sheet after sheet of paper off a wooden press was no mean feat. Book collectors still sought to protect their acquisitions; by no coincidence, about this time hand-written book curses evolved into printed bookplates.
Bookplates, typically pasted into the front cover of a volume and always incorporating the name of the owner, have remained popular to this day due to their limitless design possibilities. A bookplate may be a simple black and white rectangle proclaiming
Ex-libris John Smith.
Or it may be a more original and ornate design incorporating heraldry, block prints, whimsy, and printed or hand-tinted color.
The central purpose of the bookplate remains the same as that of the book curse: protect the book from theft or unauthorized borrowing! To this end, many folks have designed their bookplates to include a warning to malefactors – with words, images, or both. The warning may be subtle, or more direct:+++
A Word about Cursed Books
Note that the second book plate above subtly references the Necronomican, H.P. Lovecraft’s “dreaded volume.” The Necronomicon is a cursed book in the sense that anyone who messes with it is pretty much guaranteed to get into trouble. While a book curse offers protection against theft, a cursed book brings calamity to anyone who dares open it.
While we cannot attest to any real cursed books, they abound in literature. Harry Potter and his friends encounter one in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – a diary containing the malevolent spirit of a young you-know-who. An unsuspecting Harry is warned by the worldly wise Ron of the possibilities inherent in a strange book:
“Dangerous?” said Harry, laughing. “Come off it, how could it be dangerous?”
“You’d be surprised,” said Ron, who was looking apprehensively at the book. “Some of the books the Ministry’s confiscated – Dad’s told me – there was one that burned your eyes out. And everyone who read Sonnets of a Sorcerer spoke in limericks for the rest of their lives. And some old witch in Bath had a book that you could never stop reading! You just had to wander around with your nose in it, trying to do everything one-handed.”
When it comes to book curses or cursed books, the lesson is “Borrower Beware!”
Not too much about book history can be considered ghastly or morbid. But as you gear up for Halloween this year, don’t disregard the rumors lurking in the stacks: Some books throughout history were bound in human flesh. Anthropodermic bibliopegy, the academic term for books bound in human skin, fascinates many students and researchers around the world. There are a handful of books living in universities, museums, and private collections across the globe with these rumors attached, and to the excitement of some — and the horror of others — several have been scientifically proven true: they are indeed bound in the flesh of humans.
Many questions arise when one is told a book they’re holding is bound in human flesh. Who created these books and why did they choose such a material? Who was the willing (or unwilling) donor? What kind of text has been fated to wear a shroud of human skin for the rest of its days? And lastly: Do I want to put this book down or dive into its curious past?
Throughout the middle ages and popularized more in the 1800s, books have been bound in human skin for a variety of reasons. In tales that can rival the best works of horror, mystery, and crime, the owners of these skins include medical patients, secret admirers, criminals, enemies, and more. Whether from the behest of the donor before death or at the strange obsession of a doctor or even at the bidding of the law — several of these tomes have survived the test of time.
Harvard and Des Destinees de l’Ame (Destinies of the Soul)
Harvard’s Houghton Library boasts a single proven anthropodermic binding: Des Destinees de l’Ame by French writer Arsène Houssaye, bound in the mid-1880s. This volume, presented by the author himself to his friend Dr. Bouland who completed the binding, is a meditation on the soul and contains an inscription by Bouland detailing the origins of its binding:
“This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman. It is interesting to see the different aspects that change this skin according to the method of preparation to which it is subjected. Compare for example with the small volume I have in my library, Sever. Pinaeus de Virginitatis notis which is also bound in human skin but tanned with sumac.” (Source)
In 2014, testing by Bill Lane, the director of theHarvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory, and Dr. Daniel Kirby of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies confirmed with 99% surety that the binding came from a human. With this inscription, we are left wondering who this woman was and why history remembers her skin but not her name; however, we are also given quite a poetic motive for its binding. Several other rumored bindings in Harvard’s collections were tested as well, yet proven to be bound in sheepskin.
The Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Stockton Hough Collection
The Historical Medical Library (HML), located within the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, proclaims to house the largest collection of confirmed anthropodermic bindings in the United States. In March of 2015, the HML invited Dr. Richard Hark of Juniata College to take samples of their five rumored anthropodermic books and Dr. Daniel Kirby confirmed that they are, in fact, bound in human skin. Through inscriptions and historical documentation, we know that three of the five books share a mysterious past: all bound at the hands of Dr. John Stockton Hough, and all bound in the skin Mary Lynch, a tuberculosis patient at the Philadelphia General Hospital, who died in 1869.
Evidently, Dr. Stockton Hough collected a sample of Mary’s skin before her burial in 1869 and kept it for several decades before binding these books in the 1880s. We may never know his motives for doing so. The books themselves? Historical texts on female health and reproduction.
Medical Historian Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris talks about three primary reasons that a book might be bound in human skin: as a passion for collecting odd items which are in turn viewed as valuable, to memorialize the dead, and finally, as a lasting punishment for a criminal. Check out this fascinating video of Dr. Fitzharris speaking on the history of anthropodermic bibliopegy in episode five of her video series “Under the Knife” (7:18), which includes the gruesome tale of execution of William Burke, a criminal, whose remains were used to create the “Burke’s Skin Pocket Book.”
How does one determine if a book is truly bound in human skin or if it is actually a more common leather taken from sheep, goat, cow, or pig? Des Destinees de l’Ame and the Stockton Hough Collection were scientifically tested using the same method: through a process called Peptide Mass Fingerprinting (PMF). PMF uses very minute samples from the book’s binding and tests for specific amino acid sequencing, comparing the results to what is known to occur in various mammals.
The Anthropodermic Book Project has made it its goal to investigate claims of human skin bookbindings. So far, they have tested 30 books claimed to be bound in human skin using the Peptide Mass Fingerprinting method, with 18 positive results and 12 books determined to be fakes. No published lists of results exists, as many institutions wish to remain private on the status of their materials. For a complete description of Peptide Mass Fingerprinting, including a comparison to DNA analysis, visit: Analyzing Alleged Human Skin Books Via Peptide Mass Fingerprinting.
In 2014, anthropodermic bibliopegy became popular in the media after Harvard declared that one of their rumored books was actually bound with sheepskin, rather than human flesh. We can be grateful for this resurgence in interest, lest many bibliophiles or fans of the macabre would have never known about this eerie past lurking in the archives of the world.
ABM Guest Blogger Sherry Lochhaas is a librarian by trade and enjoys exploring the odd & fantastical side of life. She lives in Oakland, California.
On February 28, 1963, the television series The Twilight Zone aired an episode entitled “Printer’s Devil,” based largely on a short story by Charles Beaumont entitled “The Devil, You say.” In this episode, the editor of a failing newspaper makes a deal with a stranger who offers to fund the enterprise in exchange for serving as the sole linotype operator and sole reporter. As the stranger, Mr. Smith, gets scoop after scoop – some mere minutes after the events take place – the newspaper gains in status. Mr. Smith then tries to get the editor to sign a contract guaranteeing continued success in exchange for the editor’s immortal soul. It seems that Mr. Smith also modifies the linotype machine so that whatever is written on it takes place for real.
The title of the episode refers to Mr. Smith as an incarnation of Lucifer, but it also refers to a term used to describe some printing apprentices. According to the Wikipedia article on the subject, the term’s origin is the object of some speculation. Some think it refers to the black skin stains resulting from the ink, and as black is a color associated with malicious sorcery, these apprentices came to be called devils.
Others speculate that worn-out or broken type ended up in a “hellbox,” which the apprentices took to the furnace for recasting, or that the term dates from the apprentice to English printer William Caxton, whose surname was Deville.
There are, however, two stories that are less practical but more compelling as anecdotes.
Early printing was often associated with devilry (even Aldus Manutius, the extraordinary Venetian printer, came in for his share of suspicion). There is an apocryphal story about a business partner of Gutenberg’s named Johann Fust. Fust was a major investor and supporter of Gutenberg’s printing-related inventions, but when Gutenberg failed to repay the investment and its interest within a set amount of time, some unproven stories say he took the machinery as collateral. It is certainly provable through court documents that Gutenberg eventually went bankrupt and appears to have lost control of his own invention.
In any case, according to this version of the story, Fust is supposed to have sold some of Gutenberg’s bibles to the French royal court of Louis XI. As early type was designed to resemble scribal handwriting, it would have been easy to mistake them for the manuscripts standard at the time. But the books raised some questions among the courtiers. All of the letters were unnaturally identical, after all, and the red ink might well be blood. He also seemed to make and sell the books far more quickly than was possible with manuscript books. So Fust was jailed on suspicion of black magic.
This story, while an excellent one, has little documentary evidence to support it. That said, over the years there have been whispers linking this story to the one of the infamous Dr. Faust, who sold his soul in exchange for knowledge.
Another explanation for the term “printer’s devil” refers to the idea that every print shop had a special devil, possibly the “patron demon” of scribes and printers named Titivillus, who indulged in minor mischief such as inverting type and misspelling words. The apprentices were an easy group to blame for such errors, and so became known as “printer’s devils.”
Whatever the origin, it is a wonderfully spooky term, and the many possible sources make for good storytelling. There was even a pub in Bristol, England, named The Printers Devil, but unfortunately it has been closed since 2008. Who knows? Maybe it was haunted.
Have you ever wondered what advice to give young people about to get married? In the second half of the sixteenth century, the book market abounded with guidebooks about how to live – how to travel, how to write about travel, how to be a prince, how to be a good father – and even how to die. (more…)
I was looking for someone, and I had been here before.
Staring down the long aisle, I blinked hard, and looked at the slip of paper in my hand. A bunch of letters and numbers, written in pencil. A call number. I squinted at my own jagged vertical printing. “Is that an S, or a 5?” I thought. Was this even going to work? Last time, I came up empty. What was I doing?