A book called Des destinees de l'ame (Destinies of the Soul) has been housed at Houghton Library since the 1930s and it is believed to be the only book bound in human skin.
When our ancestors started developing a writing system, they would write on anything they could find. It could be a stone, or a leaf, or a tree bark. It was the Ancient Egyptians who decided to use a paper-like material called “papyrus”. Papyrus was made by pounding flat the woven steams of a papyrus plant. They then started gluing the papyrus sheets together to form scrolls, which were the first time they came close to making an actual book.
The process of binding books started in India in the 2nd century B.C. The Hindu scribes would bind together palm leaves which were used to write religious texts between two wooden boards using a twine. This technique then spread to the Middle East and Eastern Asia and spread to the Roma empire by the 2nd century A.D. While using cardboard for binding books is the traditional way, it was reported that a book at Harvard has been bound by human skin.
Des destinées de l’ame
A book named Des destinées de l’ame (Destinies of The Soul) was published in the 1880s. The books’ writer, Arsene Hussaye gave the book to his friend, Dr. Ludovic Bouland in the mid-1880s, who then donated the book to Harvard. One of its curators announced on June 4th, 2014 that the book has been bound in human skin. The book is owned by the Harvard University library and has been at Harvard’s Houghton Library since the 1930s. It also has a note inside of it from the donor of the book. This note confirmed that he had the book bound in human skin.
The note was written in French and was later translated by Harvard. The note read: “This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament had 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 kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman. It is interesting to see the different aspects that change this skin according to the method of preparation to which it is subjected. Compare for example with a small volume I have in my library, Sever. Pineau’s De Virginitatis notis which is also bound in human skin but tanned with sumac.” Honestly, what kind of a sick person does this?
Confirmation By The Researchers
According to the curators at Harvard, the practice of binding books in human skin was actually pretty common in the past and dates back to the 15th century. This method is known as Anthropodermic bibliopegy. There were also rumors during the French Revolution about a tannery for human skin had been established at Meudon outside Paris. People would use this method to memorialize the dead and some other reasons.
In order to make sure that it really was human skin, the researchers at Harvard analyzed peptides within a sample of the supposed skin to identify proteins that would allow them to eliminate any other possibility. On further analysis, it was confirmed that the skin was actual human skin. According to Bill Lane, director of Harvard’s Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory, “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”. The book has been in Houghton Library since the 1930s.
Skin Of John Horwood
One other case of bookbinding by human skin is of the book owned by the Bristol Record Office in the UK. The book is said to be made out of the skin of the first man that was hanged at Bristol Gaol. The book was made from the skin of an 18-year-old boy named John Horwood, who was hanged for the murder of Eliza Balsum.
That book contained the details of the crime committed by Horwood in 1821. He became infatuated with Eliza and had previously threatened to kill her. He had thrown a stone at her while she was walking to a well to get some water. Upon hearing the lady scream, her friends came to the site of the incident, and she was taken to the hospital. Unfortunately, she died from a head injury. After the trial and execution of Horwood, the surgeon Richard Smith decided to tan a part of Harwood’s skin to bind his case papers. The cover of the book was designed with skull and crossbones and the words “Cutis Vera Johannis Horwood” meaning “the actual skin of John Horwood” added in gilt letters.
Book Made From William Burkes Skin
Another book was made in 1829. This time it was made by the skin of the infamous murderer, William Burke. Burke had been supplying corpses for dissection to the private Edinburg anatomy school which was run by Robert Knoxx. What they didn’t know was that instead of digging up corpses, Burke and his partner were actually killing people. They sold more than 15 bodies to the school before they were caught.
The cover of the brown pocketbook had no pages, but it would have been used to store personal notes and money had been stamped with the date of execution of Burke. But no one knows how his skin ended up being the cover of the pocketbook which is in the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburg’s museum. 18 more books that are bound by human skins have been reported over the years. Thank God the act of binding books by human skin is no longer a trend.