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Harvard says library includes book bound in human skin

The book, which dates from the 1880s in France, is Arsene Houssaye’s “Des destinees de l’ame.”

Photo courtesy of Houghton Library

The book, which dates from the 1880s in France, is Arsene Houssaye’s “Des destinees de l’ame.”

Harvard University library officials say their collection includes a book that is, in all likelihood, bound in human skin.

The officials say Harvard conservators and scientists tested the binding using several different methods. The experts were “99 percent confident” that the binding is of human origin, a library official said in a recent blog post on the website of the Houghton Library, the university’s rare books library.

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The book, which dates from the 1880s in France, is Arsene Houssaye’s “Des destinees de l’ame.” The book is “a meditation on the soul and life after death.” It was presented by the author to his friend, Dr. Ludovic Bouland, in the mid-1880s. Bouland, a noted doctor and bibliophile, had it bound with skin from the unclaimed body of a female mental patient who had died of a stroke, according to two blog posts on the book that were written by Heather Cole, assistant curator of modern books and manuscripts.

The book is the only known book in Harvard’s massive collection that is bound in human skin. Similar testing done on books from the Harvard Law School and Harvard Medical School libraries discovered both were actually bound in sheepskin, according to Cole’s posts.

A note written by Bouland inserted in Houssaye’s book says, “A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering,” Cole wrote.

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