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Yuck! Book found to be bound with human skin

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Tests confirmed that this French book from the mid-1880s is bound in a woman’s skin. (Photo courtesy of Harvard Library)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Tests have confirmed that a book at Harvard University’s Houghton Library is bound in human skin, the library’s blog said Wednesday.

In the mid 1880s, the French novelist Arsène Houssaye presented his book “Des destinées de l’ame” — which the university said is a meditation on the soul and life after death — to a noted medical doctor. The book was bound with skin from the unclaimed body of a female mental patient who had died of a stroke.

Houssaye wrote, “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.”

Harvard said Wednesday its conservators and scientists tested the binding using several different methods and they are 99.9% confident that the binding is of human origin.

The library blog noted that books bound in human skin were once somewhat common and had been going on 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.”

Thankfully, that went out of style.


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