The practice of binding books in human skin, known as anthropodermic bibliopegy, is not in vogue so much nowadays, but was au courant well into the 19th century. A 2006 article in The Harvard Crimson reported that no fewer than three such volumes were on the shelves of the Harvard University Library System. However, provenance supporting claims of human skin binding was sketchy and difficult to authenticate. For example, an inscription in one of the books declared: “the bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma 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.”
Some books bound in human skin were used by physicians as a means to honor the memory of their patients. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia owns three books on the history of women’s health that were purportedly bound in the tanned skin of “Mary L__,” a 28 year old Irish widow who died in 1869 while under the care of Dr. J. Stockton Hough.
Except for inconclusive visual examination and unsuccessful DNA testing, no fruitful analyses had been done on any of the supposed “human skin bound” books, but the itch to learn the truth of the matter, one way or another, remained alive. This presentation will describe the use of PMF (peptide mass fingerprinting) to finally set the record straight.
PMF, a standard bioanalytical method, can be used to identify mammalian sources of collagen, the primary proteinaceous component of vertebrate connective tissues, including skin, the source of parchment. For PMF, enzymatic digestion is used to cleave collagen at specific amino acid sites forming a mixture of peptides. The amino acid sequence of each protein is unique, thus the resultant mixture of peptides is unique. The peptide mixture is analyzed by MALDI resulting in a mass spectrum of characteristic marker peptides or a “peptide mass fingerprint.” Small evolutionary variations in collagen’s amino acid sequence result in species-specific markers–unique fingerprints–which, in the case of anthropodermic bibliopegy, allow us to distinguish human parchment or tanned leather from other mammalian sources.