Articles

Bookbinding the Dead: Harvard Confirms 19th-Century Book Bound in Human Skin

by Allison Meier on June 5, 2014

Illustration from "Death's Doings" by R. Dagley (1827) (via the British Library)

Illustration from “Death’s Doings” by R. Dagley (1827) (via the British Library)

After having deadly disappointment earlier this year when it was revealed two of the three books at Harvard University believed to be bound in human skin were both sheepskin, the third has been confirmed as being hominid-made.

Heather Cole, assistant curator of modern books and manuscripts, who obviously took gleeful joy in breaking this news, wrote on Harvard’s Houghton Library’s blog: “Good news for fans of anthropodermic bibliopegy, bibliomaniacs and cannibals alike: tests have revealed that Houghton Library’s 1880s copy of Arsène Houssaye’s Des destinées de l’ame (FC8.H8177.879dc) is without a doubt bound in human skin.”

The edition of "Des destinées de l'ame" by Arsène Houssaye bound in human skin at Harvard (via Wikimedia)

The edition of “Des destinées de l’ame” by Arsène Houssaye bound in human skin at Harvard (via Wikimedia)

This was determined through a mix of microscopic samples tested for their protein source through “peptide mass fingerprinting” (PMF) and liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry that analyzes the amino acid order, revealing species. Director of Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory Bill Lane and Daniel Kirby at the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies stated the PMF of the book “matched the human reference, and clearly eliminated other common parchment sources, such as sheep, cattle and goat” and the data “make it very unlikely that the source could be other than human.”

While this is quite the macabre victory in the realm of biblio-curiosities, books bound in human skin are not an unknown object. At the 2013 New York Academy of Medicine’s Festival of Medicial History & the Arts, scholar Daniel K. Smith discussed “anthropodermic bibliopegy” and explained one reason there aren’t more books in human skin is that it’s just hard to do. The skin is thinner and rips more easily than that from sturdier hoofstock animals. With examples going back to the 17th century, they can be found lurking in collections at many top literary institutions. Or as this misleadingly mundane headline from a 2006 AP article proclaims: “Some of the nation’s best libraries have books bound in human skin.”

Aside from Des destinées de l’ame (meaning “Destines of the Soul”) at Harvard’s Houghton Library, there are specimens at Brown University’s John Hay Library, the National Library of Australia, the University of Georgia, the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, and the Boston Athenaeum. All of these haven’t been tested, but books like this almost always have a commemorative note indicating their source. The human donors were people with little control over the destiny of their remains, from executed criminals (here’s a book made from murderer William Burke at Edinburgh’s Surgeons’ Hall Museum) to dissected corpses (sometimes used on anatomy books, very meta) to the poor. (The Harvard book is said to be sourced from a French woman who was a mental patient.) Usually the subjects of these books were related to death or salvation.

Morbidity aside, human skin books do point at a mostly lost art of bookbinding, where the exterior of the tome had meaning to the interior. Coincidentally, there’s now an exhibition from Designer Bookbinders, an international artisan society, called Inside Out that brings together 65 contemporary examples of bookbinding. While the exhibition is now in London at the St. Bride Foundation, this fall it travels to Harvard’s Houghton Library. Perhaps the human skin books can there be brought into a dialogue of the very visceral side of bookbinding.

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