Ghoulish Discovery at a Harvard Library


Harvard’s rare-book library reported recently that a 19th-century volume about the soul and afterlife is bound in human flesh.

In the late 1880s, French author Arsène Houssaye presented his 315-page meditation, Des destinées de l’ame, to Ludovic Bouland, a doctor and avid book collector. His friend then had the book covered with skin from the back of an unclaimed female mental patient who had died of “apoplexy.” Bouland included a handwritten note with the volume. “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. …”

Using a technique known as peptide mass fingerprinting, Harvard’s expert said recently they were 99.9% certain the binding is human and not parchment made from sheep, cattle, goats — or apes. The novelist/poet Houssaye’s work is the only one of its kind at Harvard. Another human-bound book that Bouland noted, from the 17th century, resides at the Wellcome LIbrary in London. The binding of books in human skin — known as anthropodermic bibliopegy — dates to at least the 16th century, while the tanning of human flesh who were enemies, criminals or heretics may stretch back to the ancient Scythians. In the 19th century, bodies of executed criminals were routinely donated for medical education, and their skins were then given to bookbinders and tanners.


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