Lifestyle & Belief

Harvard library confirms this 19th-century French book is bound in human skin

BOSTON, Mass. — There's grizzly and fascinating news coming out of Harvard University.  

Curators at the school's Houghton Library have confirmed that a book in the collection is bound in human skin.

Harvard has long suspected that its copy of "Des destinées de l’ame," a work published in the 1880s by French writer Arsène Houssaye, was wrapped in the remnants of a flayed person. Houssaye gave the book to his friend, the evil-sounding Dr. Ludovic Bouland, who inserted in the volume a note that explained its binding:

"This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman. It is interesting to see the different aspects that change this skin according to the method of preparation to which it is subjected. Compare for example with the small volume I have in my library, Sever. Pinaeus de Virginitatis notis which is also bound in human skin but tanned with sumac."

A book collector named John B. Stetson, Jr. deposited the book at Houghton Library in 1934 and his widow gifted it to the library in 1954.

Harvard didn't confirm that the skin actually came from a person until yesterday, after conservators and scientists analyzed proteins and amino acids in samples of the binding.

Bill Lane, who directs the Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory, concluded, "The analytical data, taken together with the provenance of 'Des destinées de l’ame,' make it very unlikely that the source could be other than human."

The book is the only such volume in Harvard's collection, although the practice of binding books in human skin, known as anthropodermic bibliopegy, has a long history dating to the 13th century. It became something of a trend beginning in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and several examples remain in libraries around the world.

You might be wondering where all this skin came from. Some of it came from executed criminals. Some might have come from the remains of bodies donated (or taken) for science. Who knows where else.

The skin on Harvard's book came from the back of a female mental patient. She'd died from a stroke and nobody had claimed her body.