Last April brought disappointing (but relieving?) news that a book long suspected to be bound in human skin in Harvard's library was, in fact, bound in sheepskin. Nothing here, move along, right? But no! Now Harvard has confirmed, for the first time ever, one of its other books is indeed sheathed in human skin.
The book in question is Arsène Houssaye's Des destinées de l'ame, described appropriately enough as a "mediation on the soul life and after death," The 19th century volume is believed to have been bound in the skin of a female mental patient by its owner, a Dr. Ludovic Bouland. Bouland inserted a manuscript in the book with this morbidly fascinating note, translated from the French:
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 notiswhich is also bound in human skin but tanned with sumac.
While the origin story of this human skin-bound book seems particularly wrong to our modern sensibility, the practice of "anthropodermic bibliopegy" encompassed many realms. "The confessions of criminals were occasionally bound in the skin of the convicted, or an individual might request to be memorialised for family or lovers in the form of a book," wrote Heather Cole, a librarian at Harvard.
Bouland's note aside, it was not easy to prove that his claims were true. The librarians at Harvard finally put it to modern science. First, they used a technique called "mass peptide fingerprinting" to identify proteins in the skin, which ruled out possible animal origins like goat, sheep, or cow. But it couldn't quite distinguish human from our closer relatives such as great apes and baboons. They had to narrow it down through Liquid Chromatography-Tandem Mass Spectrometry (LCMSMS), which allows scientists to determine the order of molecules that make up the proteins. The result? Almost certainly human.
I have actually seen this book in person, and it's been haunting me since freshman year of college. Like many of us around campus, I knew of the human skin books—it was a tidbit often traded at parties and a 2006 Harvard Crimson article seems to still regularly make the internet rounds. But what I didn't expect when I peered up close was how utterly ordinary it looked, indistinguishable from the hundreds of other animal hide-bound book in the room.
Sheep, pig, human: our skin looks pretty much the same tanned and aged. This is, after all, why it took so long for human skin to be confirmed. [Houghton Library Blog]
The cover of the book bound in human skin. (See, looks totally uninteresting, right?) Credit: Harvard University Library