The Lady with the Slithering Alligator Purse

An alligator handbag of a much later date.

An alligator handbag of a much later date.

Recently I ran across a curiously fortean fashion accessory.


What a Pretty and Talkative Little Saleslady Has to Say About Them.

“Oh, dear, there goes that horrid pocket-book again. It won’t stay still a minute.”

The fussy little woman standing in a Market street dry goods store, made a grab for the recreant purse and laid it again before her on the counter. A moment later, however, it was moving slowly, but surely, away from her as though possessed with vitality.

“What’s the matter with it?” the lady continued, in answer to a question. “Nothing, except that it is made of alligator skin, of a kind that seems never to lose its elasticity. It keeps constantly on the move unless I keep it safe in my pocket. On a damp day I have known it to move two feet across the table in five minutes. No; it has never walked into anybody else’s pocket yet, but there is no telling what it might do if it got a chance.” Gathering up her bundles and pocketing the peripatetic money holder the lady hustled out of the store, and the saleslady smiled a smile of calm contentment.

“Yes, her story is all right,” she said. “I have often seen alligator skin pocketbooks and hand-satchels move around on the counter. I can’t explain it. It is a peculiarity of the skin, and that’s all I know about it.

“Talking about pocket books,” she continued, “I have seen some awfully peculiar ones. The other day a purchaser showed me one that he said was made of human skin. It was horrid. I wouldn’t have touched it for anything. I guess quite a number of them have been made, however. Some people seem to yearn for horrible things. One of the prettiest pocketbooks I ever saw was made out of catfish skin. See, here is one of them,” and she held up a pretty little fair leather contrivance with a silver clasp. “You see, it don’t look like catfish skin at all, but that is because the tanning is so perfect. It’s awfully soft and nice and I’m not a bit afraid of it. But I’m sure I would faint if anybody should put a real live catfish on me. I would really.”

Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 21 July 1886: p. 4

The human skin pocketbook was perhaps not just a legend to make a talkative little sales-lady shriek. According to the newspapers, medical students sometimes skinned cadavers and had macabre souvenirs such as pocketbooks, wallets, card-cases, slippers, and belts made of human skin. News reports are not always reliable, but there are a great many of them about tanning and making articles from human skin. The doorkeeper of the anatomical laboratory at the College of Edinburgh, used to carry a pocketbook made of the skin of the murderous burker William Burke, executed in 1829.

Are the slithering alligator leather goods just a legend, like the story that eel-skin wallets demagnetize credit cards? Or does alligator skin, with its coarse, checkerboard grain vibrate easily across a smooth surface in a seemingly mysterious way?  Would the same thing happen with a pocketbook made of ostrich skin, which is marked by pronounced bumps?

Any rational explanation?  Call for the lady with the alligator purse chriswoodyard8 AT

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