The Strange Case Of The Woman Whose Skin Was Turned Into A Book
When a poor Irish widow died in 1869 at the age of 28, she probably never imagined what would happen to her flesh.
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.
They're not the only books to be bound in human skin. We know of several notable examples: a French Bible, various anatomy texts bound with dissected cadavers, and a death-bed confession of a highwayman robber called James Allen who requested that the book be given to a man he once tried and failed to rob (he admired the guy's bravery).
There are more. Some, like a copy of Marquis de Sade's Justine et Juliette, are reportedly bound in breasts.
Beth Lander, librarian at the Historical Medical Library, told BuzzFeed: “The practice of using human skin to bind books seems to have occurred mostly in the 19th century. However, there are instances of books purported to have been bound in human skin dating back to the 15th century.”
There is no master list of anthropodermic books (meaning bound in human skin), so there’s no telling how many exist today. The Historical Medical Library has five, the largest confirmed collection in the United States. But why would they exist at all?
“The skin of executed criminals was said to have been used to bind the court proceedings of their trials, often as a public and long-lasting condemnation of their crimes,” says Lander. “And physicians were supposed to have created books bound in human skin in memorial to their patients.” Like Mary Lynch.
Three of the five anthropodermic books at the Historical Medical Library are made from a poor Irish widow named Mary Lynch, who died in 1869, at the age of 28.
But we don’t know a lot about her.
“We don’t know when Mary emigrated from Ireland, nor can we be certain that she was ever married," says Lander. "The name ‘Mary Lynch’ is a pretty common Irish name, which makes it difficult to track her with any certainty.”
We do know this:
She was admitted to hospital six months before her death with tuberculosis, but tuberculosis wasn’t solely what killed her.
The summer that Mary was hospitalised was hot, with temperatures averaging around 30°C. Hospital food was no doubt even more bleak than it is now, so family and friends brought her food from the outside, just like your mum would. It was pork and bologna, and it was, it turned out, infested with Trichinella spiralis, a parasitic roundworm sometimes referred to as “pork worm”. Mary landed a massive case of food poisoning and died six months later, her 5’2" frame weighing just 27kg.
Records do not show how bad her family felt about the whole pork thing.
Soon after her death, a 23-year-old doctor on the ward, Dr John Stockton Hough, performed an autopsy. His particular area of interest was encysted trichinosis, Mary’s ultimate cause of death. He wrote a graphic depiction of her condition, published in 1869 in the American Journal of Medical Sciences. A horrifying and apparently notable number of parasites had made a host of Mary.
Before she was buried in a pauper’s grave on the grounds of the hospital, Hough removed a slice of skin from her thigh. There aren’t any records to say why he chose this particular thigh, or what he planned to do with it, nor is there any documentation that Mary gave consent prior to her death. Since a corpse can’t, she probably didn’t.
Hough took her skin to a basement room in the hospital and tanned it in a chamber pot. Experts suggest he would have cured it in one of two ways: the traditional method (soaking in lime water, then removing any flesh, fat, or hair by hand before leaving the skin to soak in lime water for a few more days, before moving it to increasingly strong baths of tannin) or the urine method (urine was used for thousands of years in this way – the ammonia dissolves flesh, fat, and hair). No tests have been done to be certain either way, but given he worked in a hospital he no doubt had a lot of urine to hand.
It would have taken a month, if not several, to fully tan the thighs of Mary Lynch.
Twenty years passed before her skin was used to bind these three publications: 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). All three are about women’s health, conception, and childbirth. It seems relevant to note that Hough’s first wife died in childbirth, six years after Mary passed away in hospital.
It was only when he settled in Trenton, New Jersey, with his second wife and their five children that Mary’s skin finally found its way to the library.
The books are not on show, and are generally kept locked away in a room upstairs from the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s more famous exhibit, the Mütter Museum, except on special tours.
They each bear a brief note in the front written by Hough, explaining that the leather they are bound in came from the thighs of a patient called Mary L.
It’s entirely possible to request a kind of immortality like this in your own will. You can donate your tattoos to the Foundation of Art and Science of Tattooing if you want to, so why not this?
You would just have to hope that your executor complies and you’ve got enough thigh to wrap around a copy of Infinite Jest.