Sunday, 8 April 2018

Tanneries of human skin? An incident in Colmar

 Morel, portrait by JJ. Casimir Karpff
One further incident suggests the tanning of human skin could be entertained - if only as a crass scientific experiment - in the Revolutionary period.

The episode in question took place not in the Vendée but in Colmar in Alsace. On 5 Thermidor an II (23rd July 1794), the  Revolutionary Commission of Haut-Rhin ordered the arrest of a certain doctor Gabriel Morel, together with the tanner, Jean Ziegler and the trouser-maker, Jacques Maus.   Morel, ouvrier de santé in the military hospital at Colmar, had "removed the skin from a guillotined man and had it tanned to be made into trousers". Maus had reportedly kept the skin in his shop for several months where he had shown it to anyone who asked to see it. (He testified that he had found it impossible to work and tried to return it to Morel but had never found him at home.) 

According to the procès-verbal of his interrogation preserved in the muncipal archives, when asked whether he had found treating a human hide repulsive, Ziegler had replied that "it was no more repugnant to tan the skin of a man than that of a dog". He was then asked what he would charge to tan a dog's hide, to which he replied 4 livres; but added that he had not charged Morel, who was his doctor.
(La Nouvelle revue,1920/05,

The chief culprit, Gabriel Louis François Anaclet Morel (1769-1842) was a young man of precocious talent.  The son of a hospital director and demonstrator of anatomy in Colmar, he had become doctor of medicine and surgery at the age of eighteen.  At the start of the Revolution he had been studying in Paris, but returned to Colmar where he was given a commission as a military surgeon.   Until his departure for the army in 1792 Morel had led a batalliion of National Guard.  He and his co-accused were active members of the Jacobins of Colmar.  At the time of the arrest order he was assigned to the military hospital in Mainz, where he was responsible for 5,000 wounded and sick soldiers.  

According to the minutes of the Popular Society of Colmar, at the session of 16 thermidor, the two official defenders, Blanchard and Jacques Klimrath asked members to affirm Morel's "civisme";  he was supported by his colleagues Vivot and Metzger, but Chausse-Loup, a member of the Commission,  was of the opinion that he had exhibited "a profound immorality"  from earliest infancy.  Vivot, a  doctor at the military hospital,  defended his patriotism and his talent as a doctor and anatomist: far from being reprehensible his action was "necessary for the instruction of artists of this genre";  tanned human skins were commonplace  in the cabinets de curiosités of Paris, and  the body in question had been abandoned by the public prosecutor, who had jurisdiction over it.  He also answered previous accusations of immoral behaviour by Morel, that he had ferretted in the entrails of his dead father (the father had ordered a postmortem) and killed his mother by a cure on her leg ("not all interventions are fortunate").  On 18 thermidor the Society reiterated the need for Morel's services in the hospital.  The Commission acceded and the seals were removed from his surgical instruments, and from the skin itself,which had been impounded. The Revolutionary Commission was subsequently disbanded and the charges against the three men dropped.  Morel appeared before the Society to express his gratitude and was given a "fraternal accolade".
Les Jacobins de Colmar: procès-verbaux des séances de la Société populaire (1791-1795)

The National Archives in Paris, preserves a letter from Morel's co-accused asking for their case to be considered: these robust working men still seemed oblivious to the gravity of their offence.

Citizens Jean Ziegler, chamoiseur, and Jean-Jacques Maus, culottier, to Citizen Garnerin, agent of the Committee of Public Safety.


We have been deprived, for several days, of our liberty. We are going to explain to you the cause.
About ten décades ago, citizen Morel, doctor of this commune, arrived at the premises of one of us, Ziegler, with a request to tan a human skin. 

 The consideration Morel enjoyed in his profession decided me not to refuse.  I thought he wanted it for his cabinet of anatomy.  Once it was tanned, he went to Maus, also one of us, whom he engaged to make him a pair of breeches.  I agreed to his request, because I thought I could do no better than to carry out the wishes of so well-considered a citizen.

Since by this action we have neither compromised the public good, nor hampered its progress, we have reason to hope that you will help us; we are both fathers of families useful to the Fatherland.

Ziegler has at this moment 500 hides all destined to supply the cavalry, which are at danger of spoiling.

Maus would be occupied in clothing our brave defenders.  Hasten our release or expedite our judgment

Maus, culottier
Ziegler, chamoiseur 
Archives nationales, dossier 8, piece 60.quoted in Adolphe Guillot, Paris qui souffre : la basse geôle du Grand-Châtelet et les morgues modernes (1888) p,69-70.

The Revolutionary authorities bowed before realism and necessity.  However, the records of the Commission make it quite clear that, even in the middle of the Terror, the violation of a human corpse was considered totally unacceptable: "These three individuals can only be regarded as reprehensible and counter-revolutionary; the mere idea of their action brings a shudder to republicans, for whom humanity is the first duty..."

Recently auctioned portrait Morel & his wife, by JJ. Casimir Karpff

Morel was not a real criminal. The affair gives the impression of a thoughtless young man, too full of professional arrogance to consider the implications of his amusement de laboratoire.  He was to go on to enjoy a long and illustrious career.  He was founder and professor at the Maternity Hospital of the Haut-Rhin, deputy, conseiller général, and from 1813 to 1815 mayor of Colmar.  The consensus was that his later good deeds more than redeemed his reputation.


 "Culottes en peau humaine", La Nouvelle revue, 1920/05

Jacques Betz, "Gabriel-Louis-Francois-Anaclet Morel, 1769-1842, medicin et maire de Colmar"  Annuaire / [Société d'histoire et d'archéologie de Colmar], vol.27, 1778, p.27-

The account of the incident in L’intermédiaire des chercheurs et curieux for 30th March 1936 embellishes the story by supplying a named victim:  Joseph Thomas, a saintly priest from Guebwiller in Alsace who was guillotined on 11th December 1793 at Colmar:
In the Haut-Rhin, the memory is preserved  of a macabre and odious incident which took place in Colmar during the Revolution. After the execution of the saintly abbé Thomas of Guebwiller, who was condemned to death for emigration, the executioner sold to doctor Moret the flayed skin of the victim. The doctor had it tanned and had made from it a pair of trousers which he wore proudly, telling the tale of their origin.  The people of Colmar were so outraged that the authorities had to intervene: the trousers were seized and the executioner and tanner condemned for theft.  Doctor Morel himself was not troubled and even became to mayor of the town.  He subsequently showed himself more humane and redeemed himself by numerous acts of generosity and by his irreproachable administration of the town and civil hospital.
 F. Schaedelin, "Peau humaine tannée",ICC, 30 mars 1936,

 (The 1978 article by Jacques Betz, on the other hand identifies the victim as "the mayor of Soultzbach, who was accused of murder and guillotined - what's the story there, I wonder?)

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