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With Halloween just around the corner BLG will be bringing you some spooky book related stories from around the web. To kick us off we bring you the tale of a grizzly discovery at Harvard University’s Houghton Library in 2014.
What is it?
Arsene Houssaye’s Des destinies de l’ame is an example of anthropodermic binding - the practice of binding books in human skin. Quite fittingly it is a book about the soul and life after death!
Is it definitely human skin?
Scientists and researchers at Harvard University are pretty confident it is. The Director of Mass Spectronomy and Proteomics Resource Laboratory, Bill Lane said it is “very unlikely that the source could be other than human,” and Senior Rare Book Conservator Alan Puglia stated a 99% certainty that the binding came from a human being.
Yes! Binding books in animal leather is common even to this day, but there are many examples as recently as the 19th century of using human skin for bookbinding.
How old is it?
It was completed in the mid 1880’s and has been in Harvard’s collection for more than 80 years. Houssaye gifted the manuscript to his friend Dr Ludovic Bouland, a doctor and renowned Book Lover. Later it was donated to the Harvard collection by a John B. Stetson, Jr. in 1934 where it became a book of legend to students and bibliophiles alike.
Who’s skin and why?!
Often the bodies of executed criminals were donated to science and the skins would find their way to tanners and bookbinders, but this particular edition was bound using the skin from an female mental patient who had died of a stroke. Sadly, her body remained unclaimed and thus made its way into the strange world of anthropodermic binding. Houssaye inserted a note into the book explaining his choice: “Un livre sur l’Ame humaine méritait bien qu’on lui donnait un vetement humain” “A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering.”
What’s on your bookshelf?
It’s a fascinating glimpse into a practice that was once commonplace but makes our modern skin crawl. I think I prefer the wrapping paper and sticky tape method I used on textbooks when I was at school. This is one book we will definitely judge by its cover!
If you are looking to write down your own musings and want a well bound book to contain them we have some excellent notebooks available here: https://booklovergifts.com/collections/writers
Guaranteed 100% human-free.
We will be back with more gruesome tales in the lead up to Halloween so stay tuned, but for now I’m off to have some books from my bookshelf tested just in case!
You can read more here about the processes involved in uncovering the book’s history here: http://blogs.harvard.edu/houghton/2014/06/04/caveat-lecter/