Science Confirms: Yup, This Book Really Is Bound in Human Skin

New tests prove what librarians have long believed: this book's cover is made of human.
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Houghton Library

Surely, you've seen our recent work on anthropodermic bibliopegy, the early modern practice of binding books in human skin? 

No? Well, a quick refresher: some books, since the 16th century but before our own time, were bound in human skin. Why? "The confessions of criminals were occasionally bound in the skin of the convicted," Harvard librarian Heather Cole explained, "or an individual might request to be memorialized for family or lovers in the form of a book."

Qué romantico!

Anyway, we know it happened because people refer to it happening in the literature of the time, and also because some books bore inscriptions that literally said that they were bound in skin.

But such tomes are suspect. You can't just trust anyone who says they've bound a book in human skin. For example, one had this inscription, but turned out to be stupid sheepskin:

The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Mbesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it.

And so, I am happy to report, the Houghton Library's copy of Arsène Houssaye’s Des destinées de l’ame "is without a doubt bound in human skin," Cole, who is the assistant curator of modern nooks and manuscripts at the library, reports in a new blog post. (Des destinées de l’ame, by the way, translates to The destiny of the soul.)

And how do we know for sure this time, as opposed to taking the word of some creative bookbinder? The book, which had already attracted the attention of a Harvard dermatologist, was tested by the Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory. Basically, you create a profile of proteins in the putative human skin, then you run the same test for reference samples of human skin, sheepskin, goatskin, leather (i.e. cow skin). Whatever it matches up with the best: that's what your binding is made of. 

So... "The [test result] from Des destinées de l’ame matched the human reference, and clearly eliminated other common parchment sources, such as sheep, cattle and goat," said Bill Lane, the director of the Harvard laboratory.

Perhaps the book is cold, or just read some RL Stine? (JAMA Dermatology)

But there was still a catch! "Although the [test] 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.”

So, then, they ran the putative skin binding through a second test, this time Liquid Chromatography-Tandem Mass Spectrometry (LCMSMS). And that brought Lane to the conclusion that it is "very unlikely that the source could be other than human."

We now know, then, that this book is the real deal, and the only one of three Harvard books thought to be bound in human skin that has had its reputation survive scientific testing. Which makes its inscription, always creepy, even more so:

“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. 

He goes on, but I think that gives you the idea. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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