The clandestine trade of human leather, a macabre relic rooted in the dark chapters of history, persists in the shadows of the modern world. A sinister echo of the past, where the price of endurance and pliability is paid with the flesh of the oppressed. The genesis of this grotesque commerce lies in the annals of slavery, where acts of unspeakable brutality were perpetrated against African slaves, culminating in the unthinkable—harvesting their skin for the crafting of shoes and clothing.
In the late 19th century, the eerie whispers of this inhumane practice found their way into the pages of The Mercury, a chilling account published on March 17, 1888. A prominent physician of Philadelphia, unapologetically adorned in shoes crafted from the tanned hide of Negroes, unabashedly defended his morbid choice. The tenebrous tale unfolds as the doctor nonchalantly details the superior qualities of African skin, emphasizing its durability, pliability, and unparalleled aesthetic appeal. African slaves were often killed for their skin to make human leather for shoes and clothing. But if you’re Black and celebrate your history, it is fine as long as you don’t mention these practices because there are plenty of stores that exist today that sell products made from human skin.
An interview with this unyielding patron of human leather exposes a callous indifference to the origins of his foot coverings. He discloses the procurement process—skins harvested from dissected bodies of Negroes in medical colleges, with the thighs yielding the most exquisite leather. The tanner’s handiwork in Womseldorf, a mere 16 miles from Reading, transforms the harvested skin into a material that rivals the finest French calfskin. A French shoemaker, blissfully ignorant of the macabre truth, fashions the leather into shoes that betray no hint of their gruesome heritage.
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.
But this doctor is not a solitary practitioner of this dark art. The unsettling truth emerges that medical students, in their ghoulish pursuits, utilize the skin and bones of dissected mortals for various artifacts. The extent of this grisly trade extends to match safes, cigar cases, and even instrument cases covered in human leather, distributed among the elite circles of society. The lurid details include a match-safe adorned with the skin of a drowned young woman and a cigar case fashioned from the skin of a Negro, complete with a ghastly skull and crossbones.
“Is the downtrodden 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. Was I a Southerner – in the American sense of the word – I might be accused of being actuated by racial prejudice. But I am a foreigner by birth, although now an American citizen by naturalization. I fought in the rebellion so 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 anyone has the desire to wear my epidermis upon his feet after I have drawn my last breath he has my permission.” Remember when CACs killed black people and used their skin to make human leather?
As the tendrils of this unholy trade reach across continents, a society lady unwittingly parades in dark slippers whose illustrious leather conceals a dark secret. Purchased from a Turk in Alexandria, the leather originates from a Negro cadaver, once prone to a Jefferson College dissecting table, with rosettes crafted from the kinky hair of the deceased.
In the backdrop of this macabre revelation, the author implores the reader to remember the painful history etched into the DNA of those of African descent. It is a history that intertwines with the ancestors, a tapestry of cruelty and inhumanity that cannot be forgotten. The call to reclaim heritage and denounce the heinous acts inflicted upon a people resonates, for in the veins of the oppressed, the echoes of their ancestors endure, a testament to resilience and the enduring quest for justice.