When David B. Metcalfe posted this article with its reference to dreaming of dogs, I immediately responded with another curious fact, this one from Roman superstition. While dreaming of dogs may be a good omen, as Artemidorus of Daldis (2nd century, CE), writes, to dream that you are a tanner is an ill omen, “for the tanner handles dead bodies and lives outside the city.” I found this quote in the inexhaustibly rich “The Cult of the Saints,” by Peter Brown. (though Valerie M. Hope’s book on Roman attitudes towards the dead has a similar quote from another source—tragically, I had to return this one to the library before I could dig up the quote again.)
Googling this piece of evidence, David came up not with Artedmidorus, but rather this article, by Lawrence S. Thompson, “Tanned Human Skin.” Which is odd, since I knew the article already. Over the summer I had been researching the practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy, that is, binding books with human skin, for a talk on Saint Bartholomew for Morbid Anatomy in Brooklyn.
Anthropodermic bibliopegy is one of those truly practices that was far more widespread—and far more accepted—than I think we are prepared to admit nowadays. Often this was done for non-punitive measures, but in early nineteenth century England it became particularly popular as a means of marking the extreme status of the criminal. In 1827 a man named William Corder murdered his girlfriend in a barn (the so-called “Red Barn Murder”); caught and convicted, he was not only sentenced to death but to dissection at Cambridge University afterwards. And after the dissection, one of the attending surgeons removed a portion of Corder’s skin, tanned it, and used it as the cover of a book containing the court record of Corder’s trial. Additionally, William Burke, the famous murderer who sold his victims to medical schools, giving rise to the verb “burking,” underwent a similar process. After his dissection, part of his skin was made into a wallet that was given to the doorkeeper of the dissection lab; another part was bound in a book containing a record of Burke’s crimes given to Sir Walter Scott.
The question about all of this, of course, as David mentioned about that original Lawrence S. Thompson article he turned up: what does the U. S. Department of Agriculture have to do with tanned human skin?