The Strange Case Of The Woman Whose Skin Was Turned Into Books
No one knows much about Mary Lynch apart from the fact that her thighs are wrapped around three medical books in The College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s Historical Medical Library.
Preserving your tattooed skin might be the next big thing in tattoos but that wasn’t quite the deal almost 150 years ago. As if flesh bound books don’t sound too macabre enough, how about dying in a hospital far from home, not knowing that the skin from your corpse will soon be used to bind three books?
On Wednesday, July 15, 1868, a 28 year old woman named Mary Lynch was admitted to Old Blockley, Philadelphia’s almshouse, officially known as Philadelphia General Hospital (PGH). Old Blockley was located at what is now the intersection of 34th Street and Civic Center Boulevard, on the southeast corner of the University of Pennsylvania. Blockley was where you went when you could not afford care in a private hospital.
The Women’s Receiving Register from PGH lists a small amount of information for each patient: name, birthplace (a country, if other than the United States. Mary was born in Ireland.), age, temperate or intemperate habits (Were you a drunk, or not?), date of admission, ward, color and diagnosis.
Mary suffered from phthitis, an archaic term for tuberculosis of the lungs. She was listed as being of temperate habits.
The summer of 1868 was hot – temperatures during the week of Mary’s admission hovered in the high 80’s. Friends or family members were thoughtful, and brought Mary pork and bologna to supplement her hospital diet.
Unfortunately, the pork products they brought were tainted with Trichinella spiralis, a parasitic roundworm frequently found in pigs. Trichinella is passed directly from one host to another by ingestion of muscle tissue that has been infected with the encysted larval stage of the parasite.
Once in the small intestine, the larvae develop into the adult stage. After mating and reproduction, newborn larvae leave the intestine and migrate through the circulatory system to muscles throughout the body. The total time for this cycle to occur is 17 to 21 days.
Mary was admitted to Ward 27, where her attending physician was Dr. William Botsford. Botsford was just 24 years old. He had received his medical degree at the age of 23 from Jefferson Medical College.
Attending to other patients on Ward 27 was Dr. John Stockton Hough. Hough received his M.D. from the Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania in 1868. He, too, was 23 years old. Hough was resident physician at Old Blockley during the year 1868-1869. One of his research interests was encysted trichinosis.
Mary spent a little over six months in Old Blockley. She died on Saturday, January 16, 1869. Due to the wasting nature of both the tuberculosis and the trichinosis, Mary, who was 5’ 2” tall, weighed 60 pounds when she died. She was buried later in January in a pauper’s grave on the Almshouse property. No specific dates of burial were provided for patients who died at Old Blockley.
At some point between her death and her burial, Mary was autopsied by Dr. Hough. His graphic depiction of the encysted trichinosis that lead to her death was published in 1869 in the American Journal of Medical Sciences. To say that the number of parasites that made host of her body was grotesque would be an understatement.
Either before or after the autopsy, Dr. Hough removed a piece of skin from Mary’s thigh. He took the skin to a basement room in the Almshouse and tanned it in a chamber pot.
Traditional 19th century tanning began by soaking an animal skin in lime water. After the skins had soaked, any flesh, fat and hair was removed from the skin by hand. The “defleshed” skins were again soaked in lime water for a few days, and then soaked in baths of tannin, usually derived from tree bark, that were made progressively stronger over a period of weeks or months. Once “tanned,” the skins were dried, rolled and pressed into leather.
Would Dr. Hough have used such a traditional method of tanning in a chamber pot in the basement of the hospital in which he worked? Perhaps he used urine, a substance that would have been in abundance in the hospital, in order to prepare the skin. Urine was used for thousands of years as a quick way to dissolve fat, flesh, and hair from a skin. Do-it-yourself enthusiasts today tan fish skins in a one-to-one mixture of urine and water that has stood for up to two weeks in order to intensify the ammonia that is naturally present in human waste.
Any tanning method used would have taken at least two weeks to a month if not months to fully cure Mary’s skin.
Dr. Hough was listed as a physician living at 2003 Walnut Street in Philadelphia from 1871 to 1877. He married Sarah Wetherill in 1874, and left with her for an extended trip to Europe. There, Mrs. Hough became pregnant, and gave birth to a daughter in December of that year. Sarah died in Italy on January 10, 1875.
While there is no evidence that Hough practiced medicine after 1877, he did write articles on topics such as hygiene, biology, speculative physiology and statistics, and he developed a number of surgical instruments.
Hough was also a bibliophile, and began amassing a collection of medical texts that supported the publication of his catalog Incunabula Medica in 1889. When he died in 1900, the estate inventory lists his library as being assessed at $900.00, the second most valuable piece of property in his estate.
He married his second wife, Edith Reilly, on June 30, 1887. At that time, Hough lived at 827 Madison Avenue, New York, New York. Hough later settled near Trenton, New Jersey, and had five children with his second wife.
It is in Trenton where the extant part of Mary reaches its final resting place. In June of 1887, weeks before he remarries, Hough takes Mary’s skin and uses it to partially bind three books: Speculations on the Mode and Appearances of Impregnation in the Human Female…published in 1789; Le Nouvelles Decouvertes sur Toutes les Parties Principales de L’Homme et de la Femme… published in 1680; and Recueil des Secrets de Louyse Bourgeois…published in 1650. Each of these books deals with female health, conception and reproduction.
In each, he inscribes a brief note about Mary, protecting her identity by calling her “Mary L___.” One book, though, contains more than enough information about Mary, her admission and death dates, and her cause of death to be able to locate her in the PGH records at the Philadelphia City Archives.
These three books, in addition to the other two anthropodermic books in the Library collection, represent a unique convergence of text and medical specimen. The books as collections of text remain valuable sources in the history of medicine. The books as objects force us into uncomfortable considerations of the use of human skin in bindings: Was Mary memorialized in these books? If so, why did Dr. Hough keep her skin for nearly 20 years before using it?
Why did Dr. Hough use Mary’s thigh skin to bind books about conception and childbirth? What, if anything, was he saying about Mary, or women in general? Were other people aware of what he was doing?
Does the use of human skin diminish the value of the books as text, and render them nothing more than objects of morbid curiosity?
The earliest examples of books bound in human skin date from the 17th century and were produced in Europe and the United States. The books were generally created for three reasons: punishment, memorialization, and collecting.
Many of the earliest examples relate to punishment. England’s Murder Act of 1751 stipulated that those convicted of murder would not only be executed but, as an additional deterrent, could not be buried. Until its repeal in 1832, the law required that murderers either be publicly dissected or “hanged in chains.” In some cases, making items out of criminals’ skins provided yet another way to ensure the body stayed above ground.
A famous example of such punishment was the body of William Burke, who, with his accomplice William Hare, killed 16 people in a 10-month period in 1828 in Edinburgh, Scotland, and then sold the bodies to medical schools. After being caught, executed, and dissected, some of Burke’s skin was used to make a pocketbook as a final—and lasting—humiliation. The Burke pocketbook is now on display at Surgeon’s Hall Museum in Edinburgh.
Others gave their skin willingly for the purposes of memorialization. One example of this is on display at the Boston Athenaeum Library.
The book, published in 1837, has the highly informative title of Narrative of the life of James Allen : alias George Walton, alias Jonas Pierce, alias James H. York, alias Burley Grove, the highwayman : being his death-bed confession, to the warden of the Massachusetts State Prison. Allen had requested that his skin be used after his death as the cover for two copies of a book chronicling his crimes. One copy would go to John Fenno Jr., the only man known to have stood up to him, and another to his doctor.
Another reason for binding books in human leather was a desire by doctors to create rare items for their personal book collections.
James Allen was your basic old common garden early 19th-century burglar and highwayman. In 1833, he tried robbing John Fenno, Jr. of Springfield on the Salem Turnpike. Fenno resisted and Allen shot him – but Fenno lived because the bullet was deflected by a suspender buckle.
Allen was eventually caught and sent to jail, where he wrote an account of his life called ”The Highwayman.” Allen admired Fenno’s bravery in standing up to him and decided that on his death, Fenno should get a copy – bound in his skin. When Allen died in 1837, his body was brought to Massachusetts General Hospital, where enough skin to cover a book was cut off and then delivered to a bookbinder, who died it gray and added some gilding before shipping it to Fenno. Later, a Fenno descendant donated the volume to the Athenaeum.
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