Human skin from whole chest of man, tattooed with various motifs, French, 1830-1900, purchased from La Valette in 1929
Tattooed with a figure of a man with a large dagger surrounded by female angels with trumpets, this piece of human skin was purchased by one of Henry Wellcome’s collecting agents. The agent was Captain Johnston-Saint, who bought it in June 1929 from Dr Villette, a Parisian surgeon. Villette worked in military hospitals and collected and preserved hundreds of samples from the autopsies of French soldiers. In the late 1800s, tattoos were often seen as markers of criminal tendencies, or ‘primitiveness’. Medical men tried to interpret common images and symbols. Tattoos were also used as a tool for identification, a practice that continues today.