In April just passed Fool’s, Harvard University denied its Houghton Library contains books bound in human skin. When two of the three books named were quickly identified as sheepskin bound the Internet moved on. Harvard scientists led by director Bill Lane at Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory and Daniel Kirby of Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies announced today the results of their months-long toil, having performed Peptide Mass Fingerprinting on the third book we all forgot: a 19th century copy of poet Arsène Houssaye’s Des destinées de l’ame is indeed bound in human skin. Tests rule out lower primates but not great apes and gibbons because Harvard did not have sample subjects to test the book’s binding against.

Ghoulish to the contemporary imagination, the practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy (the technical term for “human skin bookbinding”) was not only fairly common in the 19th century, it had a social register we can today barely comprehend: these human books were in most cases memento moris that literally include a body part from one’s dearly departed, like Victorian hair jewelry. Alternatively, the confessions of criminals were sometimes emblazoned on their tanned skins, though not then bound into books.

However, Harvard’s copy of The Destiny Of The Soul is neither an ironic pairing between the work’s subject and material construction, nor a remembrance of the deceased: it is bound in the skin of a mental patient whose body was abandoned after she died of ‘apoplexy’ (today, stroke). A note in the book from a certain Doctor Bouland, its donor, reads:

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. 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 the small volume I have in my library, Sever. Pinaeus de Virginitatis notis which is also bound in human skin but tanned with sumac.” (translation from the French by Harvard)

The book has been in the collection since the 1930s, which means when Harvard acquired the volume it was not yet especially aged.