Question of the Month:

Human Leather

April 2013

Q:  I don't mean to sound morbid, but I heard that the skin of slavery-era black people was sometimes used as clothes. It is probably a urban legend.

--Jenkins Pettaway- Montgomery, Alabama

A:  Unfortunately, there is some truth to what you ask. I have read about many deplorable practices that occurred during slavery and Jim Crow in this country. I have no interest in ranking these atrocities, but I can tell you that the account that troubled me the most was about the flesh of dead Africans and African Americans being used to make shoes. I believe I first read about this in the archives of the Mouton Journal, but I could be wrong. I do not believe that this practice was widespread or long-lived, but it did occur. Maybe it would be best if I attached a newspaper transcript that details the practice. It is gruesome, but then so was slavery and Jim Crow.

Dr. David Pilgrim
Curator
Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia
LEATHER FROM HUMAN SKIN
[Philadelphia News.]
Printed in The Mercury, Saturday March 17, 1888

I remember that two or three years ago I incidentally referred to a prominent physician of this city wearing shoes made from the skin of negroes. He still adhered to that custom, insisting that the tanned hide of an African makes the most enduring and the most pliable leather known to man.

Only last week I met him upon the street with a brand new pair of shoes. I looked at his foot wear, as I always do - his pedal coverings have an irresistible fascination for me - and said, with a smile:

"Is the down trodden African still beneath your feet?" In the most matter of fact way, and without the shadow of a smile, he answered: " I suppose you mean to inquire if I still wear shoes made of the skin of a negro. I certainly do, and I don't propose changing in that respect until I find a leather that is softer and will last longer and present a better appearance. I have no sentiment about this matter. Were I a Southerner - in the American sense of the word - I might be accused of being actuated by a race prejudice. But I am a foreigner by birth, although now an American citizen by naturalization. I fought in the rebellion that the blacks might be freed. I would use a white man's skin for the same purpose if it were sufficiently thick, and if any' one has a desire to wear my epidermis upon his feet after I have drawn my last breath he has my ante mortem permission."

The doctor's shoes always exhibit a peculiarly rich lustrousness in their blackness. He assures me that they never hurt his feet. The new pair he was using when I last saw him emitted no creaking sound and appeared as comfortable as though they had been worn a month. Their predecessors, he told me, had been in constant use for eight months. He obtains the skins from the bodies of negroes which have been dissected in one of our big medical colleges. The best leather is obtained from the thighs. The soles are formed by placing several layers of leather together. The skin is prepared by a tanner at Womseldorf, 16 miles from Reading. The shoes are fashioned by a French shoemaker of this city, who knows nothing of the true character of the leather, but who often wonders at its exquisite smoothness, and says that it excels the finest French calf-skin.

Do not for a moment think that this doctor presents an exceptional case of one who puts the human skin to a practical use. Medical students frequently display a great variety of articles in which in the skin or bones of some dissected mortal has been gruesomely utilized, and in bursts of generosity they sometimes present these to their friends, who prize them highly. One of the dudest dudes in town carries a match-safe covered with a portion of the skin of a beautiful young woman who was found drowned in the Delaware river. It still retains its natural colour. Another young man with whom I am acquainted carries a cigar case made of negro skin, a ghastly skull and crossbones appearing on one side in relief. One of the best known surgeons in this country, who resides in this city, has a beautiful instrument case, entirely covered with leather made from an African's skin. A young society lady of this city wears a beautiful pair of dark slippers, the remarkable lustrousuess of whose leather invariably excites the admiration of her friends when they see them. The young doctor who presented them to her recently returned from an extended foreign tour, and he told her that he had purchased them from a Turk in Alexandria, and that he did not know what sort of leather they were made of, but he supposed it was the skin of some wild animal. As a matter of fact, the skin came from a negro cadaver, which was once prone on a Jefferson College dissecting table, and the leather was prepared in Womseldorf. The rosettes on the slippers were deftly fashioned from the negro's kinky hair.


The Mercury, Saturday March 17 1888

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