PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Brown University's library boasts an unusual anatomy book. Tanned and polished to a smooth golden brown, its cover looks and feels no different from any other fine leather.
But here's its secret: the book is bound in human skin.
A number of prestigious libraries — including Harvard University's — have such books in their collections. While the idea of making leather from human skin seems bizarre and cruel today, it was not uncommon in centuries past, said Laura Hartman, a rare book cataloger at the National Library of Medicine in Maryland and author of a paper on the subject.
An article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from the late 1800s "suggests that it was common, but it also indicates it wasn't talked about in polite society," Hartman said.
The best libraries then belonged to private collectors. Some were doctors who had access to skin from amputated parts and patients whose bodies were not claimed.
They found human leather to be relatively cheap, durable and waterproof, Hartman said.
In other cases, wealthy bibliophiles may have acquired the skin from criminals who were executed, cadavers used in medical schools and people who died in the poor house, said Sam Streit, director of Brown's John Hay Library.
The library has three books bound in human skin — the anatomy text and two 19th century editions of "The Dance of Death," a medieval morality tale.
One copy of "The Dance of Death" dates to 1816 but was rebound in 1893 by Joseph Zaehnsdorf, a master binder in London. A note to his client reports that he did not have enough skin and had to split it.
The front cover, bound in the outer layer of the epidermis, has a slightly bumpy texture, like soft sandpaper. The spine and back cover, made from the inner layer of skin, feels like suede.
Zaehnsdorf probably left the covers plain to showcase the material, Streit said.
Brown's other "Dance of Death" edition, done in 1898, is more elaborately decorated with inlays of black leather and a gold-tooled skull. But a closer examination reveals the pores of the skin's former owner.
The story, Streit said, is about how death prevails over all, rich or poor. As with many of the skin-bound books, "there was some tie in with the content of the book," he said.
While human leather may be repulsive to contemporary society, libraries can ethically have the books in their collections if they are used respectfully for academic research and not displayed as objects of curiosity, says Paul Wolpe of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.
"There is a certain distancing that history gives us from certain kinds of artifacts," Wolpe said, noting that museums often have bones from archaeological sites. "If you had called me and said these are books from Nazi Germany, I would have a very different response."
The Boston Athenaeum, a private library, has an 1837 copy of George Walton's memoirs bound in his own skin. Walton was a highwayman — a robber who specialized in ambushing travelers — and he left the volume to one of his victims, John Fenno. Fenno's daughter gave it to the library.
The Cleveland Public Library has a Quran that may have been bound in the skin of its previous owner, an Arab tribal leader. Pam Eyerdam, head of the library's fine arts and special collections department, said he may have wanted to immortalize himself.
"People kept their family histories written in Bibles, and what is a Quran?" she said.
Many of the volumes bound in human skin are medical books.
The College of Physicians of Philadelphia has four bound by Dr. John Stockton Hough, known for diagnosing the city's first case of trichinosis. He used that patient's skin to bind three of the volumes.
"The hypothesis that I was suggesting is that these physicians did this to honor the people who furthered medical research," Hartman said.
It's not clear whether the patients knew what would happen to their bodies. In most cases, the skin appears to have come from poor people who had no one to claim their remains.
Hough's patient was a 28-year-old Irish widow.
"Chances are she was very poor," Hartman said. "I don't know the family situation, but maybe no one came to claim the body?"
In most cases, universities and other libraries acquired the books as donations or as part of collections they purchased.
An alumnus donated the anatomy book to Brown. A 1568 edition of Belgian surgeon Andreas Vesalius' "De Humani Corporis Fabrica," it was a primary anatomy text for centuries and is still used by classes, Streit said.
The Harvard Law School Library bought its copy of a 1605 practice manual for Spanish lawyers decades ago, for $42.50 from an antiquarian books dealer in New Orleans. It sat on a shelf unnoticed until the early 1990s, when curator David Ferris was going through the library catalogue and saw a note, copied from inside the cover, saying it was bound in the skin of a man named Jonas Wright.
DNA tests were inconclusive — the genetic material having been destroyed by the tanning process — but the library had a box made to store the book and now keeps it on a special shelf.
"We felt we couldn't set it just next to someone else's law books," Ferris said.