Harvard scientists confirm that this book is really covered in the skin of a dead woman


Arsène Houssaye’s Des destinées de l’ame, housed in Harvard’s Houghton Library. (Harvard, Houghton Library)

This book is covered in human flesh. Really.

Harvard scientists confirmed today that a volume in one of its libraries contained a book that is “without a doubt” bound in human skin.

The phenomenon is called anthropodermic bibliopegy and it used to be fairly common until — well, frankly, we stopped doing that kind of thing.

There were three such books suspected to be in the Harvard libraries, but testing found that two of the three were actually bound in sheepskin.

The final book in the triumvirate is authentically human.

French novelist and poet Arsène Houssaye’s Des destinées de l’ame, housed in Harvard’s Houghton Library, is described as a “collection of essays meditating on the human spirit,” according to Samuel Jacobs’s archival account in the Crimson:

Houghton’s associate librarian for collections, Thomas Horrocks, describes the light volume as one of the author’s lesser works.

Be that as it may, probably the most remarkable thing about the book is its creepy inscription.

Houssaye reveals that the book’s binding is the human skin taken from the back of a woman, specifically an unclaimed body of a female mental patient who died of a stroke, according to Heather Cole, Houghton’s assistant curator of modern books & manuscripts.

“By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin,” Houssaye wrote. “A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering.”

Using a process called peptide mass fingerprinting, scientists were able to use microscopic samples of the covering to eliminate the possibility that the book was made out of other common binding materials like sheep, cattle or goat skin.

“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,” said Bill Lane,  director of the Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory, in a blog post explaining the findings.

So there you have it. The real thing that we might all wish had been fake.

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Abby Phillip is a general assignment national reporter for the Washington Post. She can be reached at abby.phillip@washpost.com. On Twitter: @abbydphillip

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