Book at Harvard Library Is Bound in Human Skin

Image: The book "Des destinees de l'ame," by Arsene Houssaye
The book "Des destinees de l'ame," by Arsene Houssaye (1815-1896), owned by Harvard.Harvard via Reuters

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Some food for thought for you literary cannibals: There's a book for you at a Harvard University library.

Houghton Library, Harvard's rare-book repository, confirmed one of its books was bound in human skin on Wednesday.

"Tests have revealed that Houghton Library's copy of Arsène Houssaye’s "Des destinées de l’ame"... is without a doubt bound in human skin," the library said in a blog post.

Houssaye, a French author, gave the book — whose title translates to "Destinies of the soul" — to a friend and noted doctor in the mid-1880s, Harvard says.

After receiving the book, which ponders life after death, Dr. Ludovic Bouland bound it with skin from the unclaimed body of a female mental patient who had died of a stroke.

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The book "Des destinees de l'ame," by Arsene Houssaye (1815-1896), owned by Harvard.Harvard via Reuters

Inside, Bouland left a handwritten note explaining his binding choice.

"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," he wrote. "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."

Houghton Library first reported the skin-crawling news last May, but it wasn't until Wednesday that an expert at the university could confirm it.

By taking microscopic samples from the binding and analyzing it through peptide mass fingerprinting, a technique that identifies proteins to create a peptide mass fingerprint (PMF), analysts were able to pinpoint its source.

The PMF "matched the human reference, and clearly eliminated other common parchment sources, such as sheep, cattle and goat," said Bill Lane, director of the Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Library.

But, he added, other closely related primates, like apes and gibbons, were not able to be eliminated using that technique alone. So samples were further analyzed to determine the order of amino acids; the results made it "very unlikely that the source could be other than human," Lane said.

This is the only book at Harvard known to be bound in human skin. Similar tests on books at the law school and medical school library found books bound in sheepskin.

Binding books in human skin was not unheard of in the 19th century. According to Harvard, there are numerous accounts of bodies of executed criminals being donated to science, and their skin being given to bookbinders and tanners.

— Elizabeth Chuck