October Book Picks: Murder Maps & Dark Archives

Courtesy of Thames & Hudson; FS&G

Two engrossing new books of interest to collectors are out this Halloween season, both covering gruesome topics yet not grim to read.

Murder Maps: Crime Scenes Revisited. Phrenology to Fingerprint by Dr. Drew Gray (Thames & Hudson, $35) is organized geographically, and like our quarterly “Fine Maps” column, it examines historical events through the lens of cartography. The idea is that certain patterns might emerge when looking at crime from this vantage point, not only connections between specific events, but also the links to “poverty, wealth, architecture and immigration” that existed. The book covers the years 1811-1911, so we also get a sense of how investigation worked (or didn’t work) at the dawn of forensic science.

Design-wise, Murder Maps showcases the best in our current craze for super-illustrated nonfiction, containing 500 color illustrations, stylish fonts, decorative endpapers, and other embellishments. A slew of historic prints—crime scene photos, mugshots, etc.—brings all of the individual entries to life; from alleged ax-murderer Lizzie Borden to James Corder, who was hanged for murdering his girlfriend in 1827. Corder’s body was dissected, and his skin tanned into leather used to bind his memoir.

Corder’s tale provides the perfect segue into the second book at hand: Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin by Megan Rosenbloom (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26). The history of books bound in human skin, aka anthropodermic bibliopegy, is fraught with apocryphal stories, which is what Rosenbloom, the Collection Strategies Librarian at UCLA Library, tackles in her book. Enlisting a team of experts (the Anthropodermic Book Project) to do peptide mass fingerprinting tests on the objects in question, she aims to separate truth from rumor and to create an authentic list of these singular bindings for future research. (As a graduate student twenty years ago, I handled a book in Philadelphia said to be bound in human skin, which, as I read in chapter six, has yet to be verified.) 

Rosenbloom also delves into the murky world of nineteenth-century doctors who “made these skin books as luxury items for their private book collections” — a fascinating connection. Her lively prose moderates a macabre subject and gives it broad appeal.