June 2014 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Tests Prove Harvard's Book Bound in Human Skin

46572962.jpgHarvard's Houghton Library announced this week that one of its books, Des destinées de l'ame, is bound in human skin. Stories of books bound this way--a.k.a. anthropodermic bibliopegy--are not terribly uncommon. When I visited the Charles Blockson Collection at Temple University a dozen years ago, I recall being told that the copy of Dale Carnegie's Lincoln biography in my hands was bound in the skin of an African-American man. Often these stories are just that--in fact, two other bindings at Houghton recently tested turned out to be sheepskin. Daniel K. Smith chronicles some of these stories in a chapter in the new Morbid Anatomy Anthology. But in this case, scientific tests provided proof "without a doubt" that the book is the real thing. According to Bill Lane, the director of the Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory, "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." In a gruesome side-note, the Harvard catalogue record reports that the book was bound in the skin "of the unclaimed body of a woman patient in a French mental hospital who died suddenly of apoplexy."

Image via Houghton Library, Harvard University. FC8.H8177.879dc.