Humans’ relationship with their body fat has changed dramatically over time, and thankfully, so too has their use for it (at least, for the most part...). The macabre ingredient is known to have been blended into concoctions since as far back as the 16th century when it was referred to in recipes as Axungia hominis. As we as a species learned that fat from plants and animals could be used to smooth soaps and oil machines, human fat also leaked its way into candles and cosmetics. Eventually, even medical professionals were purchasing human blubber by the bag load, that is, after it had been carved off the bodies of the dead.
In an incredibly named 2012 paper, “Melting Moments: The Greasy Sources of Modern Perceptions of Fat”, Professor Christopher E. Forth details our grim and complex past with fat and takes us on a slippery trip down memory lane into the origins of humanity’s use and perception of fat, and the resulting discussion is quite a trip.
Known to the “medicine” makers of old as Pinguedo hominis, or Axungia hominis, the procurement, sale, and use of human fat was a trade steeped in superstition back in the 16th century. At the time, witches were a key concern and thought to “steal the fat of Christian infants to make their unholy grease,” said Forth.
The belief in the threat of witches was so strong that many feared having their fat harvested and used for illicit or supernatural purposes, including giving witches the power of flight or facilitating the process that could turn a human into a werewolf. While these fears were confined to fiction, human fat was used by thieves who believed burning a candle made of the substance protected them from detection while out doing some stealing. There’s no honor among thieves, as the saying goes, and certainly those of the 16th and 17th centuries had no issue murdering people in order to get the goods for their candle crafts.
In his paper, Forth paints a history of human fat trafficking that seems to subsist on stocks of nefarious origins, with the perception of the quality of the fat shifting with the reluctancy with which it was given up. Battlefields provided a veritable human fat Pick Your Own for the pharma-curious of the time, as demonstrated by Dutch physicians who took to the siege of Ostend (1601-1604) only to return with their trugs laden with the stuff.
When fighting ceased, those set for execution were the next logical resource. The sweat of condemned criminals was also collected, thought to be useful for hemorrhoids, while “poor sinner's fat” was sold by the pound to druggists and physicians. The human fat gold rush crash-landed in Paris during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution, during which time butchers supposedly sold graisse de guillotiné taken from the scores of executed corpses.
While coating yourself in the fatty deposits of the damned might not fill the modern aesthetician with promise, the adipose tissue of those cut down in their prime was believed to be of particular value. Its application for the treatment of burns and wounds leaned on people’s belief that a person’s vitality lingered in the body after death. This “life force” would be strongest in those who died at the hands of violence instead of illness, and those who were killed at a younger age. Such a person’s fat was therefore considered to be the most potent in its medicinal applications and, therefore, the most valuable.
While the widespread sale of human fat is a thing of the past, it seems there are some corners of the world where people continue to get creative with the gloopy stuff. A harrowing piece from Forbes detailed the 2008 exploits of Beverly Hills doctor Craig Alan Bittner, who used the fat from his liposuction clinic to create biodiesel for his Ford SUV.
Meanwhile, in 2009 in Huánuco, Peru, a gang was hunted down by police amidst rumors that they had been killing peasants and draining their corpses. When two members were caught in Lima, they were carrying bottles of human fat which, according to Guardian, had a going rate of £36,000 a gallon. The fat was being extracted from victims’ thighs and sold as an anti-wrinkle cream. Eek.
[H/T: The Atlantic]