Scientists and conservators carried out a series of tests on Houghton Library’s copy of the French writer Arsene Houssaye’s “Des destinees de l’ame” and concluded with 99.9% confidence that the binding material came from a human. Not creepy enough for you? No problem.
According to the library, Houssaye presented the text, described as “a meditation on the soul and life after death,” to one of his friends, a book-loving medical doctor, in the mid-1880s. So it’s a book, bound with human skin about what happens to the soul after you die. Still not creepy enough? Got it. Let’s crank it to 11.
The recipient, Dr. Ludovic Bouland, bound the book “with skin from the unclaimed body of a female mental patient who had died of a stroke,” the library said. Yeah, you heard right. This thing is a book written about the afterlife bound in human skin taken from unclaimed bodies of female mental patients.
Although binding a book in another person’s skin may seem creepy nowadays, the library says it wasn’t always so unusual and reviled.
“A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering” – Dr. Ludovic Bouland
“Termed anthropodermic bibliopegy, the binding of books in human skin has occurred at least since the 16th century,” it said. “The confessions of criminals were occasionally bound in the skin of the convicted, or an individual might request to be memorialized for family or lovers in the form of a book.”
Sign me up on that one! Putting it out there. When I die I want to be skinned and turned into several volumes of books about coffee.
Bouland refers in his note to another book in his collection, Séverin Pineau’s “De integritatis & corruptionis virginum notis,” that was also covered in human hide.
The skin on that 17th-century volume, now in the collection of the Wellcome Library in London, is tanned with sumac, a natural dye.
The macabre version of “Des destinees de l’ame” was deposited at Houghton Library in 1934 by a book collector and given to the library permanently 20 years later by the collector’s widow. Can you imagine having this thing in your house? Looking in your private library.
“War and piece, Cat in the Hat, Book about the afterlife bound in human skin, AH! Joy of cooking.”
“Houghton’s book is now the only known book at Harvard bound in human skin,” said the library, the college’s main repository for rare books and manuscripts. Tests to rule out apes
The tests, taking microscopic samples from various parts of the binding, allowed analysts to identify the source of the material through its proteins.
The analysis of “Des destinees de l’ame” matched “the human reference, and clearly eliminated other common parchment sources, such as sheep, cattle and goat,” said Bill Lane, the director of the Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory.
But the scientists had to do further tests to make them confident that the binding didn’t come from another primate closely related to humans, like the great apes and gibbons.