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Ick-alert: Old book bound with human skin, Harvard scientists say

From the fascinating/gross files, Harvard researchers determine a book in the university's collection is, indeed, bound with real human flesh.

Des destinées de l'ame
You won't find this on Amazon. Harvard University

"Des destinées de l'ame" is a curiosity. It's a book described as a meditation on the soul and life after death. The particular copy that sits in Harvard's Houghten Library came with a note written by Ludovic Bouland, a medical doctor, after receiving a copy from author Arsène Houssaye in the late 1800s.

The message includes this passage: "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." That woman was an unnamed mental patient who died from a stroke. Her body had been left unclaimed.

Harvard researchers didn't just take Bouland's word for it. They collected microscopic samples from the book's cover and sent them through a peptide mass fingerprint analysis, which looks at the protein in the samples to identify the origin. "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," the researchers reported.

There was still more work to be done. The protein analysis didn't rule out the possibility of another primate source, like an ape. The next test was a Liquid Chromatography-Tandem Mass Spectrometry analysis. This delves deeper into the order of amino acids, which told the scientists the source was human.

The book dates from a time when binding volumes with human skin was considered quite a bit less squicky than it is now. It even has its own name: "anthropodermic bibliopegy." It's still a bit of a rarity to find one these days. "Des destinées de l'ame" is the only known book in Harvard's collection with a human cover. Suspected books in Harvard's medical and law libraries underwent testing and were found to be clothed in sheepskin rather than people parts.