Does the idea of dandruff freak you out? Does peeling skin after a sunburn nauseate you? Well, then here’s a little something you may find even more horrifying, an article filled with bizarre items made throughout history using human skin.
Shoes, handbags, and books have legally been created using human skin, and those are actually some of the more tame creations that have made use of this morbid material. Let’s take a look at the use of human skin to create art and other merchandise and the macabre means that have been used to gather the epidermis of deceased individuals.
A Pair of 19th Century Shoes Made with Revenge in Mind
John Osborne, the third governor of the state of Wyoming, practiced medicine before entering the world of politics. While employed as a surgeon in Rawlins, Wyoming in the late 1870s, Osborne became infatuated with the criminal mind. Obsorne and a fellow physician illegally exhumed the body of George Parrot, a train robber better known as “Big Nose George.” Osborne bore a longstanding grudge against Parrot and wanted to make an example of the deceased thief.
The two physicians studied the brain of Parrot while hiding the rest of Big Nose George’s body in a whiskey barrel for more than a year. Osborne later used patches of skin from Big Nose George’s chest and legs to create a satchel, a purse, and a pair of shoes. Osborne wore the shoes on several occasions, including his inauguration as governor. The shoes are currently on display at the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins, Wyoming.
Victorian-Era Books Bound in the Skin of Convicts
The most mainstream use of human skin to create objects in recent history was in book binding, a practice called anthropodermic bibliopegy. Common in the Victorian Era, anthropodermic bibliopegy used tanned human skin to bind books. Book binders often harvested skin from criminals. They did this partially as a cruel way to punish criminals after their death, as the criminals’ own skin often bound the proceedings of their trials.
One of the more interesting books to surface from this time period came up for auction in 2007. The book included the skin of Father Henry Garnet, an indirect collaborator in the plot to blow up the British Houses of Parliament in 1805. This plot is referenced in the Alan Moore comic book series and the movie V for Vendetta, and effigies of the conspirators are burned on November 5th of each year, Guy Fawkes Day.
For his actions in the plot, the court hanged Garnet and removed his skin to bind copies of a summary of his trial entitled A True and Perfect Relation of the Whole Proceedings Against the Late Most Barbarous Traitors, Garnet a Jesuit and His Confederates. One copy of the book surfaced in 2007 and sold for $11,000 at auction.
A Collection of Human Tattoos
Tales of macabre items made from human skin often center around medical experiments emanating from Nazi Germany during World War II. The true source for many of these items appears to be Buchenwald concentration camp and two of its most despised commandants, Karl Otto Koch and his wife, Ilse Koch, who was known to prisoners as the “Bitch of Buchenwald.”
While stories of lampshades made from the skin of deceased concentration camp prisoners have yet to be proven, horror stories about the treatment of prisoners by German soldiers are common. Soldiers and scientists “shrunk” the heads of at least a few prisoners and routinely performed crude “experiments” on the bodies of the dead. One of the few survivors of Buchenwald, Kurt Koebess, confessed that Ilse Koch asked her husband to remove tattooed segments of skin from prisoners. Isle Koch fervently selected, collected, and preserved the tattoos of deceased prisoners to create a horrifying personal art gallery.
Serial Killer Chic
The 20th Century killer Ed Gein probably created the most bizarre item ever made out of human skin. Gein scoured graves for bodies before becoming the murderer that inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs.
Gein carefully removed the faces from corpses in order to create masks that he passed off as shrunken heads. He also fashioned a belt studded with human nipples. Gein’s most ambitious creation, however, was a human skin body suit made to replicate the female form in order to satisfy Gein’s desire to become a transsexual.
Maps & Flags in the Name of Art
The artist Andrew Krasnow is well known for shocking art involving dried human skin and organs. He obtains all of the skin he uses legally from medical cadavers as well as using some pieces of his own skin for small displays.
One of Krasnow’s best known works, Palette, is a two foot by two foot map of the United States made from about 10 patches of dried human skin sewn together. An installation entitled American Skin featured a United States flag made of human skin. Republican stalwarts Bob Dole and Newt Gingrinch criticized Krasnow’s series of American flags made from human skin, and the duos’ protests prevented an early 1990s exhibition of Krasnow’s work at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati.
Krasnow prefers to work with the skin of Caucasian men, as he uses the skin to point out that most suffering in North America is a product of the actions of white males over the past three centuries.
Although the use of human skin to create material goods is now banished to the realm of horror movies, a few efforts still exist to create retail accessories out of legally acquired human skin. Hu]man Leather Products (Seriously?) supplies a line of human skin products from willing donors, but the company touts a very long wait time. Human Leather Products offers a wallet for $14,000, a belt for $16,000, and a pair of leather shoes for $27,000.
The 41-year-old author Maksim Aleshin recently tattooed his back with the words “living book” as a publicity stunt for his final novel. Aleshin has met with a surgeon to select patches of his skin that will be used to bind a single copy of his final book after his death. The author hopes to sell it and leave the proceeds to his daughter.
If you are looking for something a little less, well, gross, the company VIP Fibers will allow you to create just about anything out of your pet’s hair. Send in the hair you acquire while brushing your pet, and you will receive yarn created from the hair. Imagine, you could creepily cuddle up with your pet in a blanket made from the pet’s own hair.
Image of Ilse Koch is from the U.S. Signal Army Corps, and the image of Ed Gein’s vandalized grave marker is from Bryanwake/PD. Both images of A True and Perfect Relation of the Whole Proceedings Against the Late Most Barbarous Traitors, Garnet a Jesuit and His Confederates bound in Father Garnet’s flesh are photos taken while the book was in the possession of Wilkinson Auctioneers.