Harvard scientists confirm Arsène Houssaye book is bound in human skin

Arsène Houssaye’s 'Des destinées de l’ame' is believed to have been bound in the skin of a female mental patient who died of a stroke

Heather Saul
Friday 06 June 2014 12:41 BST
(Houghton Library, Harvard University)

Harvard scientists have confirmed a volume in one of its libraries is “without a doubt” bound in human skin after a series of tests conducted on the binding confirmed the origin of the material.

Scientists and conservators used several different methods to test the binding and are now “99.9 per cent” sure the material covering the book, Arsène Houssaye’s Des destinées de l’ame, is of human origin.

A team used a process known as peptide mass fingerprinting to examine microscopic samples of the covering and eliminate the chance that the 19th century book was made out of other binding materials such as sheep or goat skin.

The binding was then analysed further to determine the order of amino acids, the building blocks of each peptide, which are different in each species.

Bill Lane, the director of the Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory, explained: “The PMF from Des destinées de l’ame matched the human reference, and clearly eliminated other common parchment sources, such as sheep, cattle and goat.

“However, although the PMF was consistent with human, other closely related primates, such as the great apes and gibbons, could not be eliminated because of the lack of necessary references.”

Mr Lane added: “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."

According to Heather Cole, Assistant Curator of Modern Books & Manuscripts a note detailing its origin inserted inside the book revealed the human skin used to bind the book was taken from the back of a female mental patient who had died of a stroke.

The note, from Dr. Ludovic Bouland, states: “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."

Anthropodermic bibliopegy, the formal name for the practice of binding books with human skin, has occurred since at least the 16th century.

There are many accounts of occurrences in the 19th century in which the bodies of executed criminals were given to science, and the skins were the passed onto tanners and bookbinders, according to the University.

College newspaper The Crimson said in 2006 that it believed at least three of the 15 million volumes in its libraries were thought to be bound this way.

Testing later confirmed the other two books the Harvard Law School Library and the Harvard Medical School’s Countway Library were actually bound in sheepskin.

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